Lehigh Valley

Council denies diocese's request to demolish home in historic district

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A group of Bethlehem residents succeeded in keeping the Diocese of Allentown from taking a wrecking ball to a home in their historic west side neighborhood.

They applied enough pressure Tuesday night to persuade city council to vote 6-0 to follow the recommendation of its Historic Conservation Commission and deny the diocese's request to demolish a vacant house at 1304 Spring St. in the Mount Airy district.

The diocese says the two-and-a-half story, 19th century house, which is next to its Holy Family Manor nursing home, is too costly to repair, and wants to use most of the land as green space and some of it for a parking lot.

Council member Karen Dolan said she believes the house could be rehabilitated for much less than the $200,000 the diocese says it will take. She also questioned claims that the home is in shambles. "The exterior is in great shape," she said. "There's an absolutely precious gable.... It has a front porch that has not been tampered with ... and elegant filigrees."

Council members J. William Reynolds, Robert Donchez and Michael Recchiuti said they wanted to back up the commission and let the neighborhood know its concerns had been heard. "We want people to know city council is on their side," said Recchiuti.

Council member David DiGiacinto proposed delaying the vote until council's March 19 meeting, "to give the parties involved 30 more days to get together." But seeing that his "olive branch" only had support from Dolan, he withdrew it.

Council listened to 11 people speak for 45 minutes about the diocese's request.

Only two spoke in favor. One was Historic Conservation Commission Mary Pongracz, who was absent when the commission voted 4-3 on Jan. 28 to oppose the demolition. "The building is a wreck," she said, adding that she resented claims that the diocese of Allentown is "a negligent landlord."

The other was the diocese's attorney, Joseph Leeson, who said that until two years ago, the house had been occupied by the same tenant for 22 years. When the home became vacant, "my client discovered all the structural issues," Leeson said.

Leeson cited reports from the city engineer and two engineering firms as reasons why the house should be torn down, noting, "very little of the original structure would remain" even if the home was restored.
"My client is in the health-care business, not the business of leasing single family homes," he concluded.

After the vote, Leeson said he had no comment when asked what the diocese might do next.

Several of the residents said the diocese was practicing "demolition by neglect," and predicted if the diocese was allowed to raze the home, the Trexler Pavilion, another historic structure on the Holy Family Manor grounds, would be next.

Kenneth Loush said Habitat for Humanity had "expressed interest in working on the house" and wanted to "put a family in need under a roof."

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