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History's Headlines: Chateau in Whitehall

It is fair to say that drivers who line up to get from North 6th Street to turn on to MacArthur Rd. in Whitehall often find themselves with time on their hands. Which may be why over the years many of them have turned to the white house with the mansard roof that sits boarded up on an overgrown lot and think, “what the heck was that place?”

Well, in fact the property and the house, whose address is 1055 N. 6TH St. in Whitehall, have a long history. First owned by Lehigh County founding fathers, it later became the property of a local flour mill owner. And both were attracted to the creek as a source of water power for a mill.

The property first enters the public record in 1746. It was acquired by George Frederick Newhard. The Allen family, who owned most of the land in the Lehigh Valley back then, often complained that it was difficult to get rent money out of German immigrants. They had nothing to complain about in George Frederick. He came from the German states with a comfortable purse. In 1762 he was one of the 12 highest tax paying residents of the area. But when he bought that Jordan Creek property from Bucks County speculator John Eastburn, he showed no real interest in it.

It was George Frederick’s third son, Lawrence or Lorentz Newhard, who noticed its potential. He acquired the property from his father’s estate. In 1790, after having played a leading local role in the Revolution, Newhard opened a grist mill there. He ran it until his death in 1817.

Lawrence’s sons John and Daniel acquired the two-story mill and by the 1850s it was in the hands of John’s son Joseph. By that time the many clapboard fences around the property lead to its being nicknamed Clapboard Town, or, in Pennsylvania German “Klobbordstettle.” By the 1860s the mill passed out of the Newhard family. In 1864 it was owned by miller David Wisser.

On April 1, 1865, with Abraham Lincoln in his tragically short second term as president and  the Civil War drawing to a close, Thomas Strauss took the mill over from Wisser. Apparently, Strauss was an enterprising sort. Sometime after Strauss took over he decided the property needed to be modernized.

By the 1880s Strauss had converted the old grist mill into a modern flour rolling mill. Under the name of Daisy Flour it could turn out 50 barrels in 24 hours. He was the first local miller to introduce spring wheat and the first to sell Minnesota Flour. Strauss also maintained a three story warehouse near the Lehigh Valley Railroad depot to give his product easy shipping access.

With all this success Strauss decided to build a home on the property for himself and his family. It is possible that there might have already been a small Federal style home on the property. Architect/historian Benjamin Walbert thinks that it could not have been built earlier then the late 1840’s. “Brick was not really being used much in Allentown before that time,” he noted several years ago.

What Strauss most certainly added to the house was its distinctive mansard roof. Taking its name from 17th century French architect Francois Mansart, the design was revived in mid-19th century France for both public and private buildings. The mansard roof is a prominent feature of what is called Second Empire architecture, which takes its name from Napoleon III’s Second French Empire (1852-1871).

The style became popular in America, lasting into the 1880s. The home’s architect was probably Lewis Jacoby (1846-1929) who in the late 1870s designed Allentown’s Second National Bank in the Second Empire style with a mansard roof.

Although no one would compare the Strauss house with the grandeur of the Vanderbilts, it had charm and elegance that was added to by its setting. Magnolia trees were planted and an ornamental iron fence added. And by the standards of the Lehigh Valley of its day the Strauss family (Thomas, his wife Isabelle and three daughters) were party givers.

Several years ago, Jill Douglass, a Strauss family descendent, described a party hosted on June 15, 1893 for the Young People’s Guild of Zion’s Reformed Church at the home.  Under the lights of 300 Japanese lamps, 500 young people gathered to drink lemonade and punch.

Strauss’s daughters were particularly fond of a large magnolia in the front yard. Douglass recalls her father saying his mother, one of Thomas Strauss’s daughters, “would often ask to be taken to the yard just to be able just to sit under that tree.” Thomas Strauss also made certain that his daughters were educated. All three of them attended the Allentown Female College, predecessor to Cedar Crest College.

The American economy had many ups and down in the 19th century but Strauss managed to survive them all, dying in 1913. His wife Isabelle died in 1915. The daughters did not live there after they married and from 1915 to the 1940s they used it as a rental property. With the creation of national flour companies like Pillsbury, Strauss’s mill was forced out of the market.

In the 1930s the mill was sold to the city of Allentown, which dismantled the stone that was then used by the WPA. According to Douglass’s father, the stone was used for the outdoor theater at Union Terrace. The Strauss family sold the house in 1948. Asked by Jill Douglass why he sold it, her father replied, “Well for one thing, it had no indoor plumbing. Would you want to live like that?”

Eventually the property was sold to the Gannon family which maintained it well and installed indoor plumbing. There was a flurry of activity in 1993 when the late Peter Karoly, an Allentown attorney, purchased the property and said he wanted to move his offices there. But for unknown reasons this never happened.

Today the boarded up little house sits unoccupied and boarded up and those who pass it in backed up traffic think, “I wonder what that place was.”

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