History's Headlines: Former site of First National Bank in Allentown has rich history
If recent news reports are accurate, the old First National Bank building at 645 Hamilton St. -- the northeast corner of 7th and Hamilton streets -- in Allentown will come down next year and be replaced by a brand new office building as part of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone’s downtown redevelopment project. It will be the latest in a long line of structures that have occupied that site, a history that dates back 250 years to the founding of the city. This is a little bit about some of them.
The ink on William Allen’s map of Allentown must have been barely dry when George Wolf arrived in the hard-scrabble little village of Allentown. Sometime in 1762 Wolf set himself up at the corner of Hamilton and Allen (as 7th Street was then called) at an inn. By doing that he became the first known operator of what they called then, “a house of entertainment for man and beast” in little Northamptontown.
The name of the inn, not recorded until 1773, was the “King of Prussia.” Since many folks could not read at the time, most inns had signs out front that showed a picture to explain its name. For example, an inn named the “Red Lion” would show the king of beasts in that color on its sign. According to one source, Wolf’s inn sign featured an image that was supposed to represent Frederick the Great, the military monarch who was then occupying the Prussian throne.
Wolf was a figure in the community from the beginning. The 1762 property tax roll- the oldest known for Allentown- shows he paid a total of 8 pounds to the colony. Only David Deshler, mill owner and agent for the Allen family and later major local figure during the American Revolution, paid more at 9 pounds. In October of 1764, when fear of a possible Indian attack gripped Allentown, Wolf was named by Governor James Hamilton to head up a force of men to defend the town. Fortunately the attack never came.
Wolf left Allentown in 1768 and his inn passed to other hands. Because of its central location it became a focal point of activity. Following the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8th 1776 at the German Reformed- now Zion’s- Church it is more than likely that the celebrants found their way across the street to the “King of Prussia” for a tankard of ale.
The inn emerges again in 1800 when John Fetter takes over and re-builds the original tavern into a two-story structure. In 1810 he sold the property to George Savitz, who named it “The Square and Compass.” By that time inns were not just eating and drinking places but also sources of public information and political activity. Innkeepers, who were also local postmasters, would subscribe to several newspapers, much to the benefit of those seeking information about the wider world beyond the village. The papers the innkeeper subscribed to were usually those of the political party he supported.
In 1811, when Allentown was made a borough, the first borough election was held there. In 1812, with the creation of Lehigh County, the first several sessions of the Lehigh County Court were held in the second floor room of George Savitz’s tavern. Four of Lehigh County's earliest sheriffs began their public careers as innkeepers of the Square and Compass.
On June 26, 1839, The Square and Compass, under innkeeper George Haberacker, entertained no less a figure than the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren. Newspaper accounts tell of the crowds of men, women and children who came to shake hands and share a word with the chief executive. That evening Van Buren spent the night at the inn, becoming the only president of the United States to do so while in office. In 1840, William Henry Harrison, the man who would deny Van Buren a second term in the White House, held a reception and political rally at the inn.
The old inn got a face lift and new lease on life under the name of the Allen House, which was adopted in the 1850s. The arrival of stage coach lines and railroads brought more guests than ever. Among them in 1856 was James Buchanan of Lancaster, who was then running for president. He would be elected as the only Pennsylvania to occupy the White House. The best known Allen House innkeeper was Tilghman H. Good, who during the Civil War was Colonel of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, which contained many Allentown and Lehigh County men.
By 1886 the Allen House was failing. Rather than simply renovate the old building, it was torn down and replaced by the Hotel Allen. This six-story, 150 room building’s graceful form defined the corner of Hamilton Street and 7th Street. It had electric light, telephone service and some rooms even had private baths.
The hotel was considered the most up-to-date place for travelers passing through the Lehigh Valley. Among those entertained here before speaking engagements at the Lyric Theater-now Symphony Hall-were presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt even spoke in 1914 to a cheering crowd from its balcony. The Hotel Allen’s food was considered the best in the city and during the summer an orchestra performed regularly on what was called its “rustic porch garden.”
By the late 1940s the Hotel Allen had become outdated. In 1955, the newly merged Allentown National Bank and the Second National Bank of Allentown- now the First National Bank of Allentown- began a new building. This modified Art Moderne structure opened in 1958 and was enlarged in the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, First National was merged out of existence. As bank mergers continued into the 1990s a building that was built as a bank had lost its purpose. But as of 2013 the urban dynamic of Allentown’s history will turn yet another page at 645 Hamilton Street.
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