Hotel Bethlehem at 90

By Carole Gorney

When Lehigh alumnus Bruce Haines, ’67, learned during one of his frequent return trips to the Lehigh Valley that the Hotel Bethlehem was closing, he did what any self respecting Lehigh alum would do.  He bought the hotel. Well, actually, with a little help from his friends and some investors.

That was 1999, and a year later the hotel reopened as a Radisson franchise.  General Manager Dennis Costello said the Radisson chain had “zero decision-making” locally, but  the bank insisted on an affiliation with a national brand, and Radisson was used primarily for reservations.

Five years down the road, Haines took advantage of a “look-back” clause in the contract and dropped the franchise.  Instead the hotel became affiliated with Historic Hotels of America, a national trust for historic preservation.  The rest is history, if you’ll excuse the pun.

In recent years, the management of the Hotel B, as it is affectionately called, has hired Historian Natalie Bock and Director of Sales and Marketing Kelly Ronalds to leverage the formidable past of the 90-year-old hotel.  Besides age, the hotel also has the advantage of location.  It was built in the heart of historic downtown Bethlehem on the site of the first house in the new Moravian community formally established on Christmas Eve 1741.

Its predecessor on the same site, the Golden Eagle Hotel, was built by Moravians in 1794 when George Washington was serving as the first President of the United States of America.  That hotel, with several face lifts, survived until 1919.

During the last years of the Golden Eagle, nearby Bethlehem Steel was gaining prominence with the success of its I-beam.  Dignitaries from all over the world were coming to visit the steel plant, and the company felt that the Eagle was not up to handling such guests, Costello said.  “So, Beth Steel pushed for construction of a new facility. One-thousand bonds were sold at $1,000 a piece to finance the costs.”

No expense was spared at the time to make the hotel world class in order to cater to clients of the steel company.  There was a club room [fitness center], barber shop, shoe shine and coffee shop.  The bathrooms of the 128 guestrooms and suites were appointed with Italian marble.

There also apparently was a cigar shop in the lobby, and an unadvertised amenity in the lower level.  Built in 1922 during Prohibition, the Hotel B most surely had its own speakeasy, Ronalds told me during a tour.   A photograph from the 1920s shows a door in the lower lobby and what is clearly a bar or saloon.  That photograph has been blown up life size and placed across the door so that today’s guests can “look inside” to see the speakeasy for themselves.

Officially, the Hotel B had no bar, but when Prohibition was repealed, the Pioneer Tap Room was established in the lower lobby.  Most early visitors to the Hotel Bethlehem remember the large George Gray murals that hung on the walls around the bar depicting the history of Bethlehem.  In the 1960s, the Tap Room and its murals moved upstairs to the main lobby.  In 1999, the Tap Room was restored to its original design, and the murals were moved to the first-floor “Mural Ballroom.”

Today, one can take the proverbial “walk down memory lane” by just looking around the walls of the hotel.  Old menus from March 1938 reveal that dinner was $1—a very high price at a time when most people were only earning $1 a day.  Consider, though, that this was a prix fixe menu with meat, soup or juice or melon, vegetable or starch, dessert and “Weyhill Farms certified milk.”

Artifacts also are on display in the lower lobby’s “Hall of History,” including pewter serving pieces from the 1920s, a wooden “Boite Nature” cigar box printed with the Hotel Bethlehem name, utensils and dinnerware.  The hotel staff has uncovered an impressive amount of artifacts and documents that, according to Costello, include notes and correspondence related to the construction and opening of the hotel, and large leather scrapbooks and ledgers from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

Did I mention that part of the history of the Hotel B includes ghosts?  What hostelry of any merit doesn’t have at least one?  Well, not to be outdone, the Hotel B has three, plus a “Room with a Boo”—a haunted room on the ninth floor.

More earthly past guests of the hotel are celebrated with portraits on the walls of the main floor, where we are reminded that four U.S. Presidents, as well as Muhammad Ali, Bob Hope, Winston Churchill and the Dali Lama were among many celebrities who once slept at the hotel.

And the search goes on to recover everything possible about the hotel’s 90 years, and to celebrate other historical events of importance, such as this year’s 100th anniversary Titanic Dinner to benefit the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, or the Civil War era banquet in cooperation with the Moravian Historical Society.

“We look at history as a franchise,” Costello said.  “The history of this hotel is authentic. We couldn’t reproduce it.”

Historic Hotel Bethlehem
437 Main Street
Bethlehem, PA 18018

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram