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Bethlehem’s Gemeinhaus celebrates 275th birthday

September 15th, 2016 |

By Nicole Radzievich for The Morning Call

BETHLEHEM — Charlene Donchez Mowers calls the polyglot a “joyful noise,” choruses of early Moravian settlers singing hymns in a dozen native tongues in unison.

Their voices had once bounced off the walls of the Saal, a small worship room in Bethlehem’s oldest building, the Gemeinhaus (guh-MINE-house), 275 years ago when the city was settled.

The log structure was where the first settlers lived, learned, worked and worshipped, and the Saal was the centerpiece of their life. Benches and tables could be reconfigured for funerals, weddings or community meetings.

“This was their multipurpose room,” said Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, which oversees the building. “It was kind of like the heart of the community.”

This weekend, as the public celebrates the 275th birthday of the Gemeinhaus, visitors can tour through the heart of Bethlehem. They can walk across the wide-planked wooden floors and underneath the original white-oak beam that Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf saw when he visited in 1741 to give Bethlehem its name.

The Moravians began settling their religious mission along the Monocacy Creek after settling on the land — through a friend, Henry Antes — in April 1741. They quickly built the First House, near where the Hotel Bethlehem now stands. On Sept. 19, they began laying the foundation up the hill, on what is now 66 W. Church St., for a more permanent building.

The five-story Gemeinhaus, a German word meaning community house, was the first of a complex of colonial buildings that are still standing there. As the community expanded into those new buildings, the Moravians outgrew the Saal in the Gemeinhaus, and a new chapel was built and dedicated in 1751. A smaller Saal was maintained at the Gemeinhaus, and clergy apartments were made out of the rest of the room.

The Gemeinhaus later became the home of the King’s Daughters, an ecumenical group that moved to Market Street about a half-century ago. The Gemeinhaus opened as a museum in 1966.

Now a national historic landmark, the Gemeinhaus is the largest log structure in the country to be in continuous use, and its Saal has, perhaps, an even more important distinction.

“Today, this Saal is the oldest surviving Moravian Saal in the world,” said Ralph Schwarz, a nationally known historic preservation consultant and past executive director of the Moravian Museum. “The Gemeinhaus is one of the few that still exist in the United States and Europe.”

Schwarz oversaw the Gemeinhaus during its first major restoration project since it became a museum in 1961. In celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary, the Moravian Museum began raising money in 1991 for a project that included restoring the Saal to its 18th century appearance.

The partitions were removed, opening up the original 32-by-31-foot room and exposing the carved wooden columns that had been covered up for a century.

A painting of Jesus now hangs on the southern wall (the original by John Jacob Mueller is stored down the street at Moravian Archives). The painting overlooks a copy of a 16th century Bible opened on a table. Benches — some made in Bethlehem in the 18th century — are in rows as they would have been during religious services. The women would have sat on the east side, the men on the west.

This is close in appearance to the room that Zinzendorf would have seen when he attended Christmas Eve Service there in 1742, the one year-anniversary of when he gave Bethlehem its name. Since its restoration, the Saal has been visited by other notables, including Gov. Tom Ridge and a Danish princess.

Thousands of tourists wander through the Saal each year during their tours of the Gemeinhaus, a portal into Bethlehem’s past.


What: Gemeinhaus Community Day celebration

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday

Where: Gemeinhaus, 66 W. Church St., Bethlehem

Activities: Special tours, music, sugar cake tastings, lecture, crafts

For a complete schedule:

Source: Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites

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