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History's Headlines: Local man re-discovers archives of once prominent Bethlehem architect A.W. Leh

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - In the early 20th century, the area of Eighth and Hamilton Streets in Allentown was a busy streetcar stop. So unless people were planning to get on a trolley, few probably paid much attention as the "car" from Bethlehem pulled up on October 9, 1918. Nor was there any particular reason for them to notice the distinguished elderly gentleman with the handsome, well-trimmed mustache who stepped off it.

But suddenly something became terribly wrong with the trolley car's passenger that no one could fail to notice. As he began to walk towards Hamilton Street, the man suddenly grabbed for his chest and fell backward to the sidewalk. An ambulance arrived and rushed him to Allentown Hospital.

Unfortunately they were too late. The next morning newspaper readers learned that Bethlehem's A.W. Leh, 70, a Civil War veteran and one of the most prominent architects in the Lehigh Valley, had died of a heart attack.

Although mourned by his family, friends and colleagues, Leh's death largely removed him from the public consciousness. His buildings became part of the visual background of urban life and he slipped into the vast anonymity of the past.

Now fast forward to the 21st century.

Ken Raniere, artist/ illustrator, educator and student of Bethlehem history, became curious. In the course of doing research on E.P. Wilbur, banker/businessman and nephew of Lehigh Valley railroad founder Asa Packer, he discovered that Wilbur's South Bethlehem home, now part of the Masonic Temple, was the only home that had once belonged to Packer's Bethlehem Iron- later Steel- Company associates that had never been cut up into apartments. And it was here Raniere also heard for the first time of Leh as a designer of the city's most prominent older buildings.

Among them is the "flatiron" style E.P. Wilbur Trust Company structure at the corner of West Fourth Street and Broadway. It was built in 1910-11, 9 years after New York's famous Flatiron Building was designed by the Chicago firm of Daniel "Make No Little Plans" Burnham. Some sources suggest a busy Burnham co-designed the building with his assistant- Lancaster-born Pennsylvania German architect Frederick P. Dinkleberg.

Long active with the South Bethlehem Historical Society, Raniere, working closely with author/ historian and Moon Trail Books publisher Pat McAndrew, began to do research on Leh. He says he was floored when he learned that a collection of photographs and blueprints by Leh were at the prestigious Philadelphia Athenaeum.

Founded in 1814 as a museum and research institution, the Athenaeum's collection, with over 350,000 photographs, included architecture and industrial design items primarily for the period 1800 to 1945. Raniere had seen some of these same photos on a web site that erroneously claimed they were of Armstrong County, in western Pennsylvania. Looking at the photos Raniere knew immediately that they were of South Bethlehem. "Nobody could ever explain to me how this mistake was made," he says. "But there it was."

Knowing that many architects' blueprints and records tend to disappear after their death, Raniere could not believe his luck. "I said you got to be kidding me," he remembers, recalling his reaction. Later Raniere learned that a former colleague of Leh's was responsible for keeping this historical collection from the 1920s to the 1980s before turning them over to the Athenaeum.

The collection Raniere uncovered showed buildings not just from Bethlehem but Allentown and Easton as well. In the 1890s Leh had been based in Allentown and done some work on Allentown's historic Zion's Reformed Church.

Raniere also uncovered photos of two handsome brownstone buildings that Leh had designed on 7th Street. Others with big turrets, wide porches and stained glass windows vanished long ago to the wrecking ball and exist today only in the Athenaeum's sepia toned photos.

Who exactly was Leh? Well, he was not apparently a member of the family who ran Allentown's downtown department store for many years. Alfred Wolfring Leh, the youngest of 11 children, was born in 1848 on his father's farm in Williams Township, near Easton. He showed an interest early in wood working and carpentry.

Like many young men, his life changed forever on April 12, 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War. He served with the 198th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment as part of the Army of the Potomac, was wounded in a skirmish and was present at Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865. Although he only reached the official rank of corporal, in the postwar era his involvement in veterans affairs led to his being ever-after known as "Captain Leh."

Along with woodworking, Leh began to develop an interest in architecture. But schools of architecture were few in America in the 1870s and a European education at a place like Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts was beyond Leh's means. So he worked as an apprentice with Bethlehem architect Daniel Dougherty and by the 1880s was recognized in the Lehigh Valley as an architect. From then until his death he was to design buildings as diverse as Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church in South Bethlehem, Moravian College and Theological Seminary in Bethlehem and the E.P. Wilbur Mansion.

With encouragement from local business owners who owned Leh-designed structures, and working closely with McAndrew, Raniere began to work on a book on Leh and his buildings. Despite a severe illness that required a hospital stay, Raniere managed to completed his project. Titled "A Living Legacy: Architecture of A.W. Leh," the book was released in 2009. It contains a biography of Leh, a detailed overview of his career and a wonderful collection of photos that, thanks to Raniere, has been rescued from obscurity.

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