Nestled along Route 512 in Northampton County, the tiny borough of Bath is experiencing a resurgence – the once-sleepy community is transforming itself into a haven for local artisans.
It’s easy to miss Bath (the entire community covers less than a square mile), and is home to about 2,700 people.
Named for a community in Somerset, England, Bath was founded in 1737 – which makes it a bit older than Allentown (1762), Bethlehem (1741), Easton (1752) and Nazareth (1740).
Geographically, Bath is at the center of Northampton County, earning its nickname of “The Hub.” And in the 1800s, it had so many businesses and shops that you might consider it a predecessor of today’s shopping malls.
Peaks and Valleys
Carol Bear Heckman, resident and entrepreneur, said, “I’ve seen historical documents that show 122 businesses in the borough at that time; it was known as the place to go when you needed anything.” Heckman said Bath was home to a marble works, stables, wheelwrights, milliners, tailors, printers, and many other trades.
Bath is also noted as the one-time home of Dr. Samuel Hahnnemann, the physician who created homeopathic medicine and is the namesake of Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia.
But by the 1950s, Bath went into virtual hibernation. “The railroads stopped operating, the trolley lines stopped. There was no influx of new residents, and all available space had been taken and put into use. It really was a quiet period,” Heckman said.
Spurred by Bath’s 250th anniversary in 1987, residents created a formal “historic district” by 1998. “It was a huge undertaking,” Heckman said. “We had to photograph all the buildings in the district, collect data, document addresses, determine tax information, and confirm land-parcel numbers.” The effort was successful – and Bath became home to the 70th historic district in Pennsylvania.
And over the next 10 years, borough manager Cathy Kichline secured $200,000 in matching grants ($400,000 total) for a façade improvement program.
Turning it around
The borough began truly to wake up in the early ‘00s with the establishment of the Bath Business and Community Partnership (BBCP). The group takes a holistic five-point approach to keeping the downtown thriving:
- Physical Improvements/Design: getting downtown into top physical shape.
- Organization: Recruiting and training volunteers; communications; strategizing; and fundraising.
- Promotional/Community Marketing Promotion and Community Marketing: Organizing special events; creating retail promotions; and establishing Bath’s unique downtown “brand.”
- Economic Restructuring/Asset Enhancement: Filling vacant properties by recruiting businesses; coordinating with economic development agencies; and assisting the Borough in the acquisition of loan, grant and tax credit programs.
- Safe, Clean & Green: Ensuring that downtown is safe, environmentally friendly and well-maintained.
Heckman herself – along with husband Darrin – has been a key player in the downtown’s resurgence, particularly along a stretch of S. Chestnut St.
They moved to Bath in 1977, and established a bed and breakfast in the historic Daniel Steckel House at 207 W. Northampton St. the following year (the house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982).
The couple purchased several other nearby properties, and opened them as Steckel House Antiques; S. Seem Antiques and Artisans, a co-op of about two dozen antique dealers (clocks, candlesticks, maps, pottery and much more), and S. Seem at the Log House (locally made goods ranging from cards to mosaics, and arts-and-crafts lessons).
One of their latest acquisitions is Galleria 126, and manager Denise Tucker is quite pleased with downtown’s new direction. “Bath is developing a cool little vibe,” she said. “It’s the place to come when you’re looking for something truly unique. In many places, you’ll find the same group of artists selling the same items. What we have in Bath is something different, more individualized – certainly not items you can find in a mall.”
And she’s not speaking lightly. Stroll through the building and you’ll find an eclectic mix of jewelry, metalwork, art prints, clothing, furniture, books and lots more, all created by over a dozen regional artists. The Galleria’s “Reimagine Room” offers supplies and inspiration for the creation of personal DIY upcycling projects. And the Kitchen Collection stocks antique glassware, barware, industrial finds, and various brass and silver items.
“Blend” Mixes Things Up
Just down the street is Blend, where you’ll find…well, lots of things going on.
Owner Jenny Bertram’s shop really lives up to its name. The flexible space can offer a listening room setting for live performances by local musicians. Or you could attend an outdoor tie-dye party, pamper yourself with mud masks and martinis, or learn about wellness and living a healthful lifestyle during the “healthy happy hour.”
“We also offer art sessions, such as BYO sip’n’paint parties. And for the holiday season, we had classes in cookie decorating, table arrangements and making ‘rustic’ signs,” she said.
Blend also serves coffee and baked goods, caters on-site dinner parties, and provides a distinctive ambience for all sorts of private events.
Poised for continued growth
“The whole block [of S. Chestnut St.] is really diverse,” Bertram said. “Each storefront attracts a different market segment, and there’s appeal for all ages. We’ve been here only since last March, but it has really worked out well for us. Slowly but surely, Bath is bringing more people to the area.”
Tucker agrees. “Downtown’s changes are drawing interest from outside the area. People see what’s happening and they want to be part of it. And they find they can get more bang for their bucks than they can in the cities,” she said.
And the downtown evolution hasn’t stopped. “The shop owners plan to do some unique things to entice people downtown, with a special emphasis on holidays,” Heckman said. “And the merchants are now calling their area ‘Historic Chestnut Street.’ We’re developing a Facebook page with that name that will include a listing of all the events happening downtown.”
Antiques, artists and a hip, funky atmosphere, it’s sort of like New Hope, but a lot closer! Especially when you consider Heckman’s observation: “All roads go through Bath.”