BETHLEHEM HCC New proposal made for Grace Mansion land
Architect Robin Reshetar, accompanied by attorney Bradford Lare, encountered resistance again from the Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission for proposed new construction on the Grace Mansion property that would involve the demolition of a one-story commercial addition, the entire back porch of the two-and-a-half story circa 1885 mansion, as well as a one-story detached brick “auto house.” Reshetar sought approval for the construction of six new townhouses instead of the previously rejected five-story apartment building at the rear of the property. The revised proposal for 114 W. Fourth St. was also met with public concern at the April 16 meeting in the Rotunda.
With a vote of six to one, BHCC denied the proposal as presented. The applicant was instructed to return with revised plans incorporating guidelines made by the board regarding height and scale for the new construction. Most importantly, the board required assurances that the existing mansion would be rehabbed. Vice Chairman Gary Lader voted against the motion as not providing more leeway regarding proposed demolition.
“We want the mansion, the existing building, to shine as well as the new construction,” said Chairman Philip Roeder, clearly worried that the restoration work for the venerable home would become less of a priority for the project. Roeder provided a list of what work was needed to restore the mansion. BHCC called for a financial security bond or escrow account be set up, separate from the new construction, to ensure financing for the rehab work, before they would consider the proposed demolition work.
In his assessment of the original buildings, historic officer Jeff Long noted the garage is identified as an “auto house” on the 1912 Sandborn Fire Insurance map of the neighborhood. He also stated the original open rear porch was modified or replaced by 1912 to create a two-story enclosed rear porch, which had been altered again over time. Former Bethlehem Steel President and Chairman Eugene Gifford Grace and his family lived in the residence from 1902-1906. The garage construction and porch modifications would have taken place between 1904 and 1912 according to vintage Sandborn Fire Insurance maps.
Reshetar and Lare argued that the garage may have been built at a later time and the porch had been altered to the point where there was little historical significance to those structures.
Citing the board’s mandate to preserve the 1890s to 1950s character of the historic district, Arnold Trauptman said that he was strongly against tearing down any of the existing structures. “This property is probably the most unique property that’s in the historic district,” he said, adding, “There should be no demolition, period.”
Craig Evans, Roger Hudak, and Anthony Silvoy agreed with Trauptman.
Beth Starbuck was on the fence regarding some of the demolition, saying her greatest concern was for the preservation of the Grace Mansion itself and how any new construction would fit into the streetscape.
Southside Bethlehem resident Kim Carrell-Smith spoke of her concerns about the size and scale of the new construction and how close it appeared to the existing mansion. She also advocated for preserving the back porches of the Grace residence.
Ed Gallagher, another resident, weighed in with his uneasiness with the look of the townhouses’ large flat façade facing Martel St.
Currently owned by Wesley and Sarah Jon, the historic residence had been occupied by the Anna Mia Restaurant.
Immigration attorney Michael Renneisen was granted a certificate of appropriateness for signage in two of his office building windows at 700 Evans St. In both cases, his name, occupation and phone number are listed in white adhesive lettering in a serif font. Renneisen had been approved by the board for a building sign at the previous meeting, but had been advised to return for BHCC approval for the already installed window signage. “Many lessons learned,” was Renneisen’s reply when told by Beth Starbuck that he will need to go before them first before changing or installing any new signs in the future. The circa 1940 two-story commercial brick building is owned by GSE Realty Inc.
Stacie Brennan from ArtsQuest and Barbara K. Fraust from the Bethlehem Fine Arts Commission brought two mural project proposals for board input as discussion items. They had commissioned muralist Matt Halm to create a permanent mural on the western wall of 3 E. Third St. at the base of the Phillip J. Fahy Memorial Bridge. Since the brick surface had already been painted white, the board did not need to take any action.
Six artists were commissioned to create murals to be exhibited along the Greenway according to Brennan and Fraust. They informed the board that these would be painted on parachute cloth and would remain on display on temporary structures through August. ArtsQuest and the Fine Arts Commission partnered with Lehigh University, the SouthSide Arts District design committee, and others on this public arts project. The board was assured that if any of the six murals were to be attached to a building within the historic district at a later time, they would seek BHCC approval.
With May as “Preservation Month,” Roeder asked for assistance from the others with selecting properties to honor before adjourning.
The Bethlehem HCC is charged with the task of determining if new signs or other alterations to a building’s exterior would be an appropriate fit for the neighborhood in one of three designated historic districts. Hearings are regularly scheduled on the third Monday of the month.
Obtaining a certificate of appropriateness is only a first step for business owners and residents in a designated historic district who wish to make alterations to a building’s exterior. The BHCC’s recommendations are later reviewed, then voted on by city council before any project is allowed to proceed.