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The Morning Call: Bethlehem advances in bid to be World Heritage site

December 12th, 2016 |

Written by Nicole Radzievich for The Morning Call

Bethlehem has vaulted toward the top of the list of places the United States hopes to see enshrined as a World Heritage Site.

The city’s original Moravian settlement along with Chicago’s early skyscrapers, Ellis Island, the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park in New York City have been recommended as the cultural sites to be added to the U.S. Tentative List.

The United States uses the list to nominate sites for the exclusive World Heritage designation already bestowed upon the likes of Independence Hall and Yellowstone National Park.

“It’s the 275th anniversary of the founding of Bethlehem, and to receive this honor is just spectacular,” said Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites. “What an incredible Christmas present.”

The sites, announced Friday in the Federal Register, were selected over the last two years by a committee of experts from among hundreds of cultural icons across the country, ranging from Pearl Harbor to Key West.

The public now has 15 days to comment on the picks before they are placed on the U.S. Tentative List, possibly in January. Then, the lengthy task begins to build cases as to why each place is of international cultural significance. The United States can then make two nominations a year.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Committee vets the nominations and ultimately decides which make the list.

Newly added properties to the list can’t be nominated for at least a year. Since 2008, three of the five sites the United States nominated have been inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Committee vets the nominations and ultimately decides which make the list.

Newly added properties to the list can’t be nominated for at least a year. Since 2008, three of the five sites the United States nominated have been inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

The World Heritage list includes 1,052 sites — 23 in the United States — of natural or cultural significance, representing a “masterpiece of human creative genius” or exhibiting “exceptional natural beauty.” The cultural sites include the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China and the Statue of Liberty.

The designation brings no promise of grants but raises the community’s profile in the competitive sightseeing industry.

Just a spot on the U.S. Tentative List, Mayor Robert Donchez said, gives Bethlehem bragging rights.

“There is only one other site in Pennsylvania on this list — Independence Hall,” Donchez said. “This is such an elite [list], and it will be a boon for tourism, not just for the city but the Lehigh Valley.”

The Bethlehem site includes the 14-acre commune where the Moravians settled after fleeing religious intolerance in Europe. They built a missionary community that included a complicated network of artisanal industries from the banks of the Monocacy Creek to the farms of Upper Nazareth Township.

John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, marveled over the Waterworks in Bethlehem, the first municipal water pump system in America, while Gen. George Washington was so impressed by the Moravians’ medical care that he wrote to his wife about it and moved the Continental Army’s hospital there during the Revolutionary War.

The community had craftsmen, musicians and educators who taught everyone — regardless of wealth, gender or race — and those educational institutions evolved into Moravian College and Moravian Academy, both of which still operate.

Today, the Moravian story is told in the well-preserved German architecture that hugs historic Main Street. Moravian Bethlehem includes the Colonial Industrial Quarter, God’s Acre cemetery, the Sun Inn and other buildings owned by the Central Moravian Church, the city of Bethlehem, Historic Bethlehem and Moravian College.

Lehigh Valley congressman Charlie Dent said Bethlehem touts some of the best examples of German architecture anywhere in North America.

“Bethlehem is authentic. We’re not a Williamsburg — this isn’t a recreation situation,” Dent said. “Bethlehem has been able to preserve this for hundreds of years. What Bethlehem was able to do is extraordinary.”

The district includes two buildings recognized as historic landmarks, the Waterworks and the Gemeinhaus community hall. The Saal, a worship room in the Gemeinhaus, is thought to be the oldest Moravian one left in the world.

The U.S. Department of Interior in 2012 recognized the district’s importance, naming it one of eight National Historic Landmark Districts in Pennsylvania and one of 200 across the country.

Mowers has worked for 15 years to get a spot on the coveted World Heritage list, but the U.S. Tentative List had been closed since 2008.

The National Park Service has pointed out that, by statute, the United States hasn’t paid its dues to UNESCO or the World Heritage Fund since 2011, casting uncertainty about the United States’ ability to continue to make nominations.

Dent said those battles with UNESCO have nothing to do with the World Heritage program and doubted it would affect the nomination list.

Louisana’s Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point and San Antonio Missions, both of which made the U.S. Tentative List in 2008, were inscribed as World Heritage Sites in 2014 and last year, respectively. None made the World Heritage list this year. In the running had been 10 buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and nominated for their significance in the field of modern architecture.

Over the last two years, Department of Interior officials have said they decided to seek out places for the U.S. Tentative List that would have the best shot at the title.

Meanwhile, Mowers networked with the worldwide Moravian community, visiting settlements around the globe and discussing what they had in common with Bethlehem to bolster the city’s case. Bethlehem hosted a delegation from Denmark, where a World Heritage designation was granted last year to the Moravian community Christiansfeld.

Christiansfeld, settled 30 years after Bethlehem, spent decades documenting its case as to why the community was worthy of the status.


* Public has until Dec. 27 to comment on the nominations to the U.S. Tentative List

* A country can’t nominate a site until it has been on its tentative list for at least a year

* Nominations for the World Heritage designation are made at the discretion of an assistant secretary of the interior

* UNESCO World Heritage Committee decides which sites to inscribe

Source: Federal Register



* Moravian Bethlehem District

* Ellis Island, New Jersey and New York

* Chicago Early Skyscrapers, Illinois

* Central Park, New York

* Brooklyn Bridge, New York


* Marianas Trench National Monument, U.S. Territory, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam

* Central California Current, California,

* Big Bend National Park, Texas

* Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, U.S. territorial waters

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