ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Dave Mann was surprised. A crew he hired to remove the paint from a building that houses his business, A-Town Pawn, at 929 Hamilton Street, uncovered a layer of red brick underneath.
"I have seen old pictures of the building from the early 1920s and already it was covered with white paint," he said. "Who knew how really nice it looked underneath."
Mann's contribution has brought back to life a part of Allentown's past that was long-hidden in plain sight.
Every city has what is called an urban ecology. Its neighborhoods shift in response to human change. Mann's building was built in the late 19th century (say circa 1878), so it reflects the rhythm of nearly 150 years of change.
What dominated the 900 block of Hamilton in the 19th century were lumber yards and residences- some of them occupied by prominent families. Chief among them were the Martin, Dresher and Trexler families.
Next door to Mann's building at 927 was the home of Matilda Sauerpeck Trexler (1827-1914), the mother of Allentown businessman/philanthropist General Harry C. Trexler and his brothers, William, who died as an infant, Edwin, who worked on many projects with his brother Harry, and Judge Frank Trexler, who occupied many high in the Lehigh County and Pennsylvania State Courts.
What sort of woman was Matilda Trexler? Well, the Allentown Chronicle and News had this to say about her in her November 7, 1914 obituary:
"Mrs. Trexler was a woman of strong will and extraordinary energy of character, and she conducted her affairs with independence and success," the newspaper noted. It is not hard to imagine that she imbued her children with similar values.
Across the street is 926 Hamilton, the long-time family home of Trexlers. For many years it has been Kruper Brothers Appliance Store. An uncovered Victorian era bay window suggests what the house might have been like when the Trexlers owned it.
The Trexler family's association with the 900 block of Hamilton Street can be traced back to 1855. That year Harry's father Edwin had given up a failing carpet business in Easton and retired to the family farm in Emmaus to restore his health.
That same year Edwin's younger brother Jonas Trexler returned from California where he had "struck it rich" in the gold rush. Sometime in 1856 he and his brother decided to purchase the Dresher family's lumber yard in the 900 block of Hamilton, in partnership with Harry's father and William Dresher.
In the November 5, 1856 issue of the Lehigh Register under the name E.W. Trexler & Company, they promised builders, "boards, planks, joists, rafters, laths, fence boards, scantlings, shingles and clapboards," at the "lowest possible prices."
Accounts suggest the Trexler brothers did not always get along, Jonas at one point in the 1870s opened his own lumberyard to rival the one he founded with his brother, but they all were making money.
Harry Trexler's destiny had been shaped while he was still in his cradle by the business decisions of his father and uncle. At the time of Trexler's death in 1933, his family's lumber company was one of largest in the eastern United States. It provided the capital base for General Trexler's later investments in utilities, cement and real estate.
By 1900 Edwin Trexler had retired from the lumber business and was breading Herford cattle and taking part in supervising the family farm in Emmaus. He was a familiar figure to many as he traveled around in his simple horse-drawn rig, known as a piano box buggy, from 926 Hamilton Street to Emmaus.
At 6 a.m. on the morning of July 10, 1900 Edwin Trexler embarked on that familiar journey. Early risers could have spotted him with his snow white beard blowing in the wind. Haying was going well and Trexler decided to return home to Allentown for lunch.
At 11:30, Calvin Beaker was later to recall, he saw Trexler nearing the crossing of the East Penn railroad tracks in Emmaus. Apparently because of his severe deafness, Edwin Trexler did not hear Beaker's shouts that a train was approaching, nor did he hear the frantic whistle of the locomotive. Beaker watched in horror as the train smashed into Trexler's buggy, hurling him into the air before it came to rest about 30 yards up on the westbound track. He died a minute later. His horse died a half hour later.
What the reaction to the tragedy was at 926 Hamilton Street is unknown but it can be imagined. And with Edwin Trexler's death at the start of a new century, change came rapidly. In 1909 Jonas Trexler died, and Matilda Trexler followed in 1914. Harry Trexler later sold the home at 926 Hamilton to George Dery, the Catasauqua silk magnate, and the Trexler Lumber Company relocated to 17th and Liberty Streets. Harry and his wife Mary Trexler moved to the former George Ormod mansion at 1227 Hamilton.
Meantime, change was coming to Hamilton Street itself. By 1910, Hess Brothers, wildly successful store had shifted the urban ecology of the city's retail district. The Allentown Public Library opened in 1912.
Furniture, jewelry, piano and other retail stores were attracted to the block. Some, like Mann's building, were in old homes that had their first floors converted to retail space. In 1921 the Rialto movie theater opened on the 900 block.
By 1928, not quite 30 years after Edwin Trexler's death, the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company skyscraper office building made the 900 block almost unrecognizable from the one he knew.
Allentown, PA 18102