97 and going strong
Several hundred well-wishers crowded into the Hotel Bethlehem Oct. 6 to help the landmark celebrate its 97th birthday and its recent selection as the third best historic hotel in the country by readers of USA Today.
The birthday bash included free food and hors d’oeuvres, mounds of cupcakes, tours, musical entertainment and presentations on the history of the hotel. Guests were greeted by Hospitality Girls in white knee-high boots, a flashback to 1968, when the then-new general manager hired the young women as greeters.
Noted for its distinguished guests, whose portraits hang in the Tap Room on the lobby level, the hotel made sure some celebrities from the past were there to mingle with the crowds, at least in spirit. A sharp eye could spot aviatrix Amelia Earhart or British Prime Minister Winston Churchill chewing on a large cigar. Yes, they both stayed at the hotel, along with at least four presidents, movie stars, famous athletes and the Dalai Lama.
Much of the day’s festivities took place in the grand ballroom, where guests were treated to complimentary champagne, carved roast beef and mac and cheese covered in individually chosen sautéed toppings. A waiter wearing a tricorn hat from the Revolutionary War period circulated with sesame chicken bits and other tasty morsels. His costume was a little before the time of the Hotel B, but the historic city of Bethlehem and its Main Street where the hotel now stands played integral roles in America’s War of Independence.
Special guest speakers Bruce Haines, the current managing partner of the hotel, and Ned Book, the former general manager of the hotel during the Bethlehem Steel era, provided interesting insights into the hotel’s past to standing-room-only audiences in the ballroom.
Haines, who co-wrote the book “Historic Hotel Bethlehem,” reminded his audience that when he and the other partners in Christmas City Hotel LLC bought the building it was bankrupt and closed. Among investors who helped save the hotel were alumni of Lehigh University, including Haines, and Lafayette College.
Haines announced that the hotel made it to USA Today’s top 10 best list for the first time, and is now named the number three best historic hotel in the nation. Stating with a rhetorical question, Haines asked, “Are we the third best historic hotel in the U.S.? Probably not, but we are in the eyes of our customers.” Haines thanked the hotel’s staff. “We are proud of our staff who helped make this happen.”
He followed up with almost a cheer: “We beat Hotel Hershey.”
Book began his presentation by praising Haines and his partners for taking over the hotel. “They have done a phenomenal job of upgrading it.”
Book was hired in 1960, as Bethlehem Steel Corp. was becoming the dominant shareholder of the Hotel Bethlehem, which the company used to house its traveling executives, employees and customers visiting the nearby steel offices. During that time, the hotel was in need of some serious upgrades. “Steel felt the place looked embarrassing for the community and for Bethlehem Steel,” Book said.
Three years after hiring Book, the company ended its business relations with the American Hotel Corp., the nation’s largest hotel management firm at the time. Book was asked to stay on, and he oversaw $300,000 in guest room restorations.
The 88-year-old Book was only 29 when he took over as general manager, after working for Howard Johnson to help pay his tuition while he went to Penn State. He told the Press that his officer position in Penn’s ROTC helped give him the managerial experience he needed to manage the hotel staff.
That wouldn’t be his only challenge, though. Book recalled that after only a month on the new job, he got a phone call from the advance man for presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy. Kennedy wanted to speak at a gathering in the evening, stay overnight at the hotel, then speak at a breakfast meeting in the ballroom. When Kennedy arrived at the airport, Book said, his plane couldn’t land because there were so many people on the runway.
“By the time they got here it was wall to wall people on Main Street – down the hill, up the hill, everywhere.”
The future president of the United States stayed in room 802, which is now the Presidential Suite. Book called Kennedy “a brilliant, stunning man.”