Sunday, December 21, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 22

The country is full of cities that were too close to other cities -- there was really no need for them to develop the full panoply of civic institutions such as daily newspapers and department stores, but 100 years ago every city had to have a daily newspaper and a department store, and so they did. Most of these were industrial suburbs such as Camden, N.J., or East St. Louis, Ill. And then there was Bethlehem, Pa., which fits no particular category.

The north side of Bethlehem is an old Moravian settlement from the 1700s. The only other Moravian town to grow into a large city is Winston-Salem, N.C., and while that city's name shows it to have been the merger of two communities -- well, indicates it, because Wilkes-Barre was always one town named after two people, but I digress -- you have to know the history of Bethlehem to know that it was once in the same situation. There used to be a daily newspaper in Bethlehem, the Globe-Times; in the late 1980s or early 1990s it merged with the Easton Express. But the name of the company that published the Globe-Times gave away the game: It was the Bethlehems' Globe Publishing Co. Plural possessive.

Downtown Bethlehem was the main street of the Moravian town. The newspaper, along with Bethlehem Steel, was located across the river in South Bethlehem, which was at one time an independent city; the two Bethlehems along with the suburb of West Bethlehem were merged into One Big Bethlehem. South Bethlehem also had a downtown, a much more blue-collar place but with a big bank that was tied into Beth Steel, along Third and Fourth Streets. Merged or adjacent cities with dueling downtowns always created problems, such as in Saginaw, Mich., where the banks and the biggest store (Wiechmann's) were in one downtown, but the courthouse and another department store (Ippel's) were in another one, two miles away; both downtowns were weakened by the rivalry that stemmed from when there were separate cities of Saginaw and East Saginaw.

And for Bethlehem, it was all complicated by the fact that downtown was, oh, about five miles from downtown Allentown, a much larger city. So even in the 1930s the Globe-Times was full of ads for Hess's and Leh's and Zollinger-Harned and the other stores on Hamilton Street in Allentown. But Bethlehem never really became a suburb of Allentown, either.

So with all this it is strange that downtown Bethlehem could support a true local department store and not just some small dry-goods shop, but the story gets even weirder. Easton was the headquarters of Bush & Bull Co., a department store on Center Square that had branches in Williamsport, Pa., and Akron, Ohio, and possibly others I have not yet found -- and one in Bethlehem, which had been built for the Lerch & Rice Co. and was taken over by Bush & Bull a bit before 1910. (I wonder if people called it Push & Pull.) In the Depression, Bush & Bull closed all its stores, I believe, with the exception of the Bethlehem branch, which had as its president F. Royce Bush -- who lived in Easton. (Easton is 12 miles from Bethlehem.)

And that lasted into the late 1950s, when Bush & Bull finally gave up the ghost and the store at 559 Main St. became a branch of The Orr Co. -- which had its main store in Easton, directly across Center Square from where the Bush & Bull store had been. So in terms of its newspaper and department store, Bethlehem ended up as a colony of Easton, which was twice as far away from it as Allentown. Easton and Bethlehem are both in Northampton County, but otherwise this makes little sense, since you can simply walk across an imaginary line and go from Bethlehem into Allentown. There is even a street connecting the two called Union Boulevard.
None of this really matters, but you find odd little things like this when researching the history of department stores that keep it interesting. Orr's once had a false front that has been taken off; I thought I remembered the store's extending all the way to the intersection at the right, and the back wall runs that far, so the false front might have covered three buildings; but it must have been L-shaped, because the buildings don't have the same setback.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The false exterior of Orr's did indeed extend to the side. I did a Google image search and came up with a photo supposedly from 1980 ( that also shows the large seasonal wreath. I was often in Orr's as a kid in Bethlehem, and when I visit with family we sometimes explore the various shops that are there today (the interior is all connected on several levels, although there are individual storefronts on Main Street as the current photo shows).

Bethlehem's downtown was dying in the early 1970s (in part because of the Whitehall Mall and the newer adjacent Lehigh Valley Mall, on US 22 between Allentown and Bethlehem) and two projects were undertaken in the mid-'70s to remedy this: closing a few blocks of Broad Street to create a pedestrian mall, and giving Main Street a "Victorian" decorative veneer via (as I recall) a federal grant. Neither was effective; Broad Street was finally reopened a few years ago.

Of possible interest: Down Main Street (across from Hotel Bethlehem) is the Moravian Book Shop, one of the oldest retailers in the country (since 1745). As recently as the early 1970s it consisted of a single storefront (I bought my copy of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book there). Today it's many interconnected buildings taking up half a block, and it sells a lot more than books and CDs, although reasonably priced items are scarce.