Friday, November 1, 2013

A history mystery solved!

For the past few months our contractor has been telling us that he believes our building may actually be older than the early 1900’s, which is when Chipman Knitting Mills would have built it because it was incorporated in 1907.  It was a mystery that needed to be solved, an itch that needed to be scratched.  So this week, we scratched that itch and found out.

First, a little history:  I researched the property deeds going back to the 1840’s.  History books indicated that this was part of the vast amount of land (huge tracts of it, if you will) owned by the Moravian Church in the area.  When the church found out that someone who was doing speculating for them lost them a fortune, they reluctantly decided to sell off parts of their land to raise some money.  Philip H. Goepp (for whom Goepp Street in Bethlehem is named) was put in charge of selling the land.  In 1852 he sold 32 acres (of which our property was a part of) to one Christian Friederich Hellener.
1874 map - yellow highlighted area shows Hellener's property.  Also, in the lower left-hand corner you'll see
property belonging to E.P. Wilbur, which is where our house currently stands.  E.P. Wilbur owned the
E.P. Wilbur Trust Co. downtown (the beautiful flatiron building that Wells Fargo occupies now).

Christian Hellener was an interesting man.  He was born in Germany to the prominent von Hellener family in 1797 and in 1817 decided to take a ship to the U.S. from Amsterdam where he was travelling with some friends. Things couldn’t have gone any worse.  He was swindled out of all of his money, the ship was plagued by storms and rough seas and was driven far off course, the captain died and it was 57 weeks before the ship reached port – in Portgual, where he was quarantined at port for 100 days. He finally reached New York in 1819 and set out for Philadelphia where he learned the baker’s trade.  He then moved to Bucks County, hearing that the swindler who stole his money was there.  It was not him, but he liked the area and eventually wound up in what is now known as Fountain Hill.  He left the baker’s trade and tried his hand at weaving carpets and bedspreads, and later would take up stone carving.

On the censuses from 1860, 1870, and 1880 he lists himself as a farmer, but interestingly, on the 1850 census, he lists himself as an artist.  He has been described as a gifted artist, a watercolorist, and found some success as a sculptor, but with a family to feed he abandoned the artist’s life for the more plebian but better paying work of a marble cutter and farmer.  The Bethlehem Public Library has a collection of some of his artwork, which we plan on trying to see and copy so we can hang in our studio.

1850 Census.  Hellener is in the middle of the page, line 30.

 We have also decided it would be fitting, since the property was owned for so long by someone who loved the arts, that it would be a cool connection to the past to name our gallery "The von Hellener Gallery” in honor of Christian Hellener.  

The street across from us is named for Christian Hellener.
He died in 1893, at 95 years old, with the distinction of being the oldest person in Lehigh County. 

Now, on to the age of our building.  I spoke to a local Fountain Hill historian, Ed Redding, and he told me the entire history of the building, including the fact that it was erected in 1912 for the Chipman Knitting Mills.  So that’s it.  Mystery solved.  He also told me that for a short time after Chipman owned it, it was used by the silk mills (there were 2 mills within a couple of blocks of the building), which we did not know.  It was then a fur factory (yuk!), but with the Depression going on that business didn’t do too well and the deed was kicked back to the bank (E.P. Wilbur Trust, ironically!)and the building sat empty for several years until it was re-opened as a grocery wholesale warehouse around 1940 until 1973, when it became Valley Graphics Printing.  Then in 2012, in its centennial year, we came to be part of its legacy. 


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