BLUEFIELD — Talk about time travel. Just the word – Bethlehem – conjures up images of a baby in a manger and modern-day Israel.
Go to the Bethlehem in Pennsylvania and become a patriot, Revolutionary War kind, because this town has more original colonial structures than any town in America.
Add in a visit to the nation’s largest industrial brownfields and marvel at the metamorphosis of Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces into a dynamic music and arts complex known as ArtsQuest.
All sorts of pioneering stories in this Bethlehem, with results that keep going.
That abundance of colonial buildings is a fact from historian Natalie Bock, one of only a dozen official hotel historians in the nation. She’s affiliated with Hotel Bethlehem, built in 1922, and a member of the exclusive Historic Hotels of America.
Wandering in and around all those colonial stone structures on a three-day visit in September, I wondered why Williamsburg even happened.
Dining on lamb chops in the Sun Inn built in 1758 was but one of my many close encounters with America’s beginning throughout the city. Martha Washington overnighted here; George too, but at a different time.
So did John Hancock, Ben Franklin and John Adams.
Daughters and nieces of George Washington, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Ethan Allen and other famous patriots came to school here. Curious fact, don’t you think?
That’s because the Moravian people who founded Bethlehem believed girls and boys should learn exactly the same things, including science, mathematics, history, music and more.
Not available elsewhere in the colonies. The Moravians came from lands now known as the Czech Republic, not seeking religious freedom as so many other settlers.
They were interested in sharing their religion with native peoples, names easy to find in the 271-year-old Moravian cemetery.
These folks were prosperous, perhaps wealthy, skilled in 35 crafts and trades, believing in a lifestyle separating the sexes except for occasional appointments.
That’s fodder for thought while walking about their beautiful neighborhood. They lived in choir houses: one for girls, one for boys, one for widows. The married couple's choir house had separate sleeping areas for the women and for the men, and that curious appointment book.
I highly recommend strolling with hotel historian Natalie Bock, or with knowledgeable guides from Historic Bethlehem; they’re in the Visitors Center two doors from Hotel Bethlehem.
The stories are rich, the buildings handsome and the sense of early America ready to absorb.
Central Moravian Church opened in 1803 and anchors the neighborhood with Federalist architecture; go here at noon every second Tuesday of the month for free Bach concerts.
These 90 volunteer singers form the oldest Bach Choir in America, founded in 1898.
Hotel Bethlehem historian Bock says Bethlehem abounds with concerts. Perhaps there’s a connection to the fact that the Moravian College School of Music is housed in the 1740s building used originally as the Choir House for the Brothers.
Chamber music in historic places suits me quite fine, but I also wanted to explore the Bethlehem link to modern music and present-day building preservation.
ArtsQuest is the center; SteelStacks the spot. Big spot: 250 acres. Campus of Bethlehem Steel that once employed 300,000 people.
Abandoned? Hardly. Vibrant, energetic home of 1,200 performances, nine festivals, two-screen art cinema, farmer’s market -- with a skyline like no other.
Five blast furnaces, stretching a quarter mile, lighted at night. “We like using arts and culture to revitalize and invigorate,” says Kassie Hilgert, a senior vice president for ArtsQuest.
Fun of another sort in communities near Bethlehem, part of the sprawling, scenic Lehigh Valley.
Crayons for instance. Crayolas are made in Easton; can’t tour the factory but can create wondrous works of personal art in the downtown Experience center.
Easton is the Lehigh Valley city with seven grand theaters, restored and functioning. I took a peek at the State Arts Theater, splendor today comparable to its 1926 beginning.
Tours are possible in nearby Nazareth where Martin guitars are made. I say go whether you play or not to look over the shoulders of artisans hand crafting every part in a remarkable 350-step process.
“Carrying on” seems natural in this Pennsylvania Valley, from the 1741 Moravian arrival to the exciting SteelStacks adaptation, individually-owned shops forming a bustling downtown, historic buildings appreciated and maintained and music, music, music.
Christine Tibbetts is a travel writer for The Tifton, Ga., Gazette. Contact her at
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