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History's Headlines: The Roman Temple on Hamilton Street

Chicago architect and city planner, Daniel “make no little plans” Burnham (1846-1912) was not a man to mince words.

Although he liked young architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a disciple of Louis Sullivan (then considered an unorthodox figure in the profession), he had some advice about the success of the Beaux-Arts Classical architecture that dominated the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a.k.a. the White City, for which he had been the chief of construction.

“Frank, the Fair shows our people the beauty of the Classic,” declared Burnham. “They will never go back.”

Wright, who liked Burnham’s energy as much as he disliked his advice about architecture, was to live to see this prophecy overturned, and he was to do plenty of that overturning. But looking back on that time today, it is possible to appreciate with some perspective the great classical style buildings from the period of the late 19th to the early 20th century, that takes its name from the French architecture school the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Currently, Allentown is seeing one of those classical gems restored to a new life. The Lehigh Valley Trust and Safe Deposit Company building - to give its full name - is getting transformed into a wedding venue.

Built in 1911 and designed by Wallace Edgar Ruhe of the local firm of Ruhe & Lange, the building is being redeveloped into Vault 634 by developers Mark Jaindl and his son, Zachary Jaindl.

The gleaming white Vermont marble shines like new and the dome that lights the interior is getting a face-lift. Classical is classy once more.

When the idea for the Lehigh Valley Trust Building emerged in the mind of Ruhe is hard to know. But it may have occurred to him as a young art student traveling in Italy. His father Joseph had a successful cigar-making business and was a director of the Lehigh Valley Trust. But Ruhe was not to follow in his father’s footsteps; he had early taken an interest in architecture.

In 1895, Ruhe entered the University of Pennsylvania’s architectural department, from which he graduated in 1899. Following a one year post graduate course, he went to Europe, spending most of his time in Italy. It is not known if he had any contact there with the American Academy in Rome. There was plenty of classical architecture to study in Italy.

But one Roman building that might have drawn his interest, which has a striking likeness to the Lehigh Valley Trust Company’s façade, is the Temple of Portunus, long misnamed the Temple of Fortuna Virilis  (Manly Fortune) located near Rome’s Tibur River.

Dedicated to a sea god and protector of harbors (who has a complicated god and goddess lineage), the temple was built about 120 B.C. when Greek influences were first beginning to impact Roman culture and architecture. Surviving because it was converted into a church around 800 A.D., it was also well known among the architects of the day, having been the subject of research by Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance era scholar and architect.

John W. Stamper is an architectural historian, associate professor and associate dean in the School of Architecture at the University of Norte Dame. “In all, the Temple of Portunus is one of the most elegant combinations of Italic and Greek taste from the period,” he wrote.

On his return to America, Ruhe spent about a year working with architects in New York and Philadelphia. Most likely among them was Horace Trumbower, Philadelphia’s leading architect of the time who designed Harvard’s Widener Library (dedicated to Titanic victim Harry Widener by his mother), and the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Trumbower’s Pennsylvania German roots apparently had a particular appeal to Gen. Harry C. Trexler, who had chosen his firm to design the band shell for West Park.

In 1902, Ruhe opened his firm in Allentown. From New York, he brought as his partner Robert Lange, who had worked with firms there. By 1911,  Ruhe & Lange had become one of the leading architects in eastern Pennsylvania.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Allentown’s Hamilton Street was undergoing a building boom.

“Allentown presents an entirely changed appearance to the native who has absented himself for any considerable length of time,” noted the Morning Call on June 10, 1911. The most significant examples were the Allentown National Bank building, a Beaux Arts classical office building built in 1905 by Lewis Jacoby and S. Addison Weishampel, and Leh’s department store, built in 1911 by English born architect Ephraim Pickin, who had worked for Ruhe & Lange before starting his own firm in 1908. The extensive use of large glass windows in Leh’s led to it being called the “Daylight Department Store.”

The creation of the new Lehigh Valley Trust building was to celebrate its 25th anniversary. There were problems at first that required city ordinances and Ruhe’s blueprints to be modified. But by the late spring of 1911 contracts were being let.

The marble was to come from the Vermont Marble Company of Proctor, Vt. Since the 1880s with the decline of Italy’s marble quarries, they had become the largest supplier of marble in the world. The company throughout its long history contributed marble to the USS Arizona Memorial, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, Arlington National Cemetery and many others. The steel came from the Lehigh Valley Structural Steel Company of Allentown.

Ruhe understood, of course, that he was designing an early 20th century bank and not a Roman temple. The blueprints in the Lehigh County Historical Society show that electricity, telephones and indoor plumbing were included. But the façade is Greek/Roman.

Its most prominent feature is four engaged, fluted Ionic columns. The column style takes its name from Ionia in Asia Minor, now Turkey, where they originated. The scroll-like capitals are sometimes called volutes for the Latin word for scroll. Inset and behind the columns are marble carved bundles of rods or fasces, symbols of the authority of Roman rule under the Republic. They have been copied in buildings in Washington, including the U.S. House of Representatives.

What is called the entablature rests on top of the columns and above it is the pediment with square decorative blocks known as dentils on its cornice.

Ruhe chose to decorate the tympanum, the triangular wall surface of the pediment, with a cornucopia or horn of plenty. A symbol taken from Roman mythology, it was often used in banknotes issued by American banks in the 19th century, before the introduction of a national paper currency.

Above them is a series of four sculpted miniature lion’s heads that in an actual temple would have been part of gutters that drained water off the roof. They are attached to antefixes, upright ornaments originally along the eaves of a tiled roof in ancient temples to conceal the joints between the rows of tiles. In this case, as the Lehigh Trust building did not have a tile roof, so they are largely decorative.

The massive front doors and other bronze features were done by the J. Polachek Bronze & Ironwork Co. of Long Island City, New York. John Polachek had been an associate of artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Before he started his own business, he ran the Tiffany foundry.

Originally there were two bronze lamps of ornamental design by the same firm located on either side of the front of the building. Apparently, they were removed in the 1970s, when the Hamilton Street Mall was constructed. Their current whereabouts is unknown.

The most significant feature of the interior is the stained-glass dome. This was quite a popular feature in buildings in the early 20th century. The White Star Line included them over the grand staircase in both the Olympic and Titanic and they were copied by other steamship lines of the era. They were also used in numerous office structures and hotels.

For many years thereafter, the Lehigh Valley Trust Company did its business in this landmark structure in times of depression and war. After it closed in 1988 as the Industrial Valley Bank, numerous efforts and plans were tried to re-purpose the building. With the current revival of downtown, it is building worth saving.

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