The front-page headlines on January 25, 1939, were blaring news about the victory of the forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and a supposed communication between the German dictator Adolf Hitler to Italy’s Benito Mussolini not to plan any military action that year. Was it, editorial writers pondered, that he wanted peace, or did it mean Hitler had something else planned for himself that year? They would not find out for sure until September with the outbreak of World War II.
But for at least some of the 21 guests at Allentown’s College Hotel, located at the corner of Fourth and Turner Streets, the early evening of that day was like many others: time to go to work. Known since its opening in 1917 as a place that catered to show acts passing through the city, the College Hotel attracted many show-people. Although the glamorous pre-Broadway show casts it hosted in the 1920s were past, they still found a welcome. In fact, 25 members of the burlesque company which had been appearing at the Lyric Theater, now Miller Symphony Hall, the past two nights had checked out for Reading that morning.
But the names of several entertainers, women performers at Allentown’s Palm Room nightclub and the club’s headwaiter, were on the guest register and presumably were all getting ready for their jobs that evening. They might not have been too happy to venture out on a day when the temperature hovered around 20 degrees with a chill wind blowing and predictions were for it to drop to 18 after dark. They just might also have been thankful in that late Depression year to have a job. Others, several permanent guests, a cement company inspector, several photographers from Pittsburgh and a traveling vacuum cleaner “supervisor of salesmen,” as the register called him, were content just to stay inside and stay warm.
But a little before 5 p.m. manager Carl M. Strauss noticed a small fire had broken out in the emergency lighting system in the attic above room 401 on the Turner Street side of the building. “Although Mr. Strauss found only a small patch of fire when he went to the attic it spread quickly and for more than an hour threatened to destroy the entire structure,” the next day’s newspaper noted. Apparently, the Rev. Father Henry J. Huesman from the rectory of Sacred Heart Church was the first one outside the building to see the flames. “He sent a boy who was at the rectory at the time to the hotel to notify them of the blaze but before the boy arrived the box at Fourth and Turner was turned in by Catherine Dougherty, 14, of 397 Turner St.,” said the newspaper.
The Allentown fire companies quickly arrived on the scene. At the same time guests were racing to their rooms to grab their clothes and raced for the door. By now a forty mile-an-hour wind was blowing and as they turned their hoses on the burning building the combination turned to ice. It was not long before the College Hotel resembled something out of a fairytale. “A half hour after the first summons brought additional companies to the scene and those men working ably under the direction of Supt. Erwin P. Erb, Captains Harry Rau and John Singlin managed to bring the fire under control,” the Morning Call noted. Its editorial page also praised the department’s efficiency.
The fire was not without its injuries to the firefighters. Off-duty fireman Clarence F. Mair rushed to the scene from his home on Washington Street. Mair remained throughout the fire until the hose was being rolled up when he was stricken by constriction in his arms because of the cold and was taken to the hospital and kept overnight for observation. Lieut. William B. Snyder suffered severe leg injuries. Firemen James Smith and James Boyle were knocked into the air by the powerful stream of water. Spectators were drawn to the blaze, some, despite the cold, just to stare and others to offer what they could. The following side item appeared in the paper:
“Firemen and policemen, encrusted with ice and chilled as they joined forces in fighting the blaze last night at the College Hotel were surprised to have hot coffee served to them as they went about their duties. No one knew where it came from, and no one immediately inquired until the coffee began to reappear at regular intervals. Finally, everyone to whom it was served became inquisitive and wanted to know how grateful they were. ‘Don’t tell anyone. It’s from Sadie Burk at the Rescue Mission and she’s not looking for any credit. She knows you fellows are needing it and is sending over regular batches of coffee in these thermos jugs,’ one of the boys from the Mission said in explaining the coffee service.”
In 1939 there were still people around who remembered the long history of the building on whose foundations and within whose walls the College Hotel was in part built. And over the next several days following the fire the newspaper had cause to look back at its storied past over the previous 90 odd years.
Sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s it became the summer home of Robert Wright Sr. A native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he came to Allentown in the 1820s. Trained as a pharmacist he soon abandoned it for the law and over time became the most prominent lawyer in the city. An important figure in local Democratic party politics, in 1860 Wright had led the welcome for Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic candidate for president against Abraham Lincoln, when he came to Allentown. He is said in one source to be the first person to put in writing the long oral tradition of the Liberty Bell’s stay in Allentown during the Revolution.
Wright’s summer retreat was called Clover Nook. It was a one-story structure that apparently had a large grove of trees behind it down to the Jordan Creek. The Jordan had been a popular spot for fishermen since William Allen had built the first Trout Hall, his fishing lodge in the 1740s. Clover Nook was best remembered among Allentown residents as the place where a now nearly forgotten writer named Timothy Shay Arthur wrote a temperance novel called “Ten Nights In A Barroom And What I Saw There.” It first appeared in 1854. The tale of a man who buys a saloon and becomes an alcoholic, Arthur wrote the novel in a tree house studio on the Wright property. Edgar Allen Poe, then a literary critic for “Graham’s Magazine” called Arthur a writer, “too fond of mere vulgarities to please a refined taste.” But the public loved it, making it the second best-selling book in the America of the day after “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Arthur wrote other books on social issues of the day and became quite wealthy. Plays based on the Barroom book toured the country.
By 1867 Wright, who had several daughters, wanted to see them educated but not away from home in a New England finishing school. So, he and other fathers founded the Allentown Female College. Its first classes were held in Zion’s Reformed Church. But, in 1868 Wright donated Clover Nook as a school building, making it the home of the first institution of higher education for women in Allentown. The relatively small building was quickly enlarged that year and in 1886, the year of Wright’s death, it was enlarged again with a second addition, 53 by 40 feet. A continuous veranda over 300 feet in length extended around the entire building. Now known as the Allentown College For Women, one of the few remnants of Clover Nook that remained was Arthur’s tree house which became a favorite spot for women who attended the college.
On June 4, 1913, a decision was made to relocate the college to what was then the far western edge of the city where it was named Cedar Crest. The move was encouraged by its president Dr. William C. Curtis, but he still retained sentiment about the old building. “That hurts my heart, it was as if an old friend were being knocked down,” he said on hearing of the fire.
The college building was sold in May of 1917 to Albert “Bert” Gomery, a Lehighton native who with his brother owned a successful wholesale and retail grocery business. He converted it to a hotel by installing telephones and plumbing. Ten years later Gomery was one of the major investors in what became the Americus Hotel. In 1939 he still owned the College Hotel but was leasing it to Strauss.
In the 1920s Miller Symphony Hall, then the Lyric Theater, was a try-out place for shows headed for New York and many theatrical luminaries of the day stayed at the College Hotel. Among the best known was Al Jolson who often in that decade appeared in try-out plays and entertained at the Allentown Fair. Jolson is best known today as the star of “The Jazz Singer,” considered by most sources the first talking motion picture. Another was fellow actor Eddie Cantor. “If your show was good enough for Allentown it was considered good enough for New York,“ Cantor told Morning Call Sunday editor and theater critic John Y. Kohl in 1954.
But by 1964 even that memory had largely faded. Unlike 1939 there were few mourners when the College Hotel, which had lingered on in a half-life, was replaced at Fourth and Turner by a parking lot. As one wag observed in that decade, “the history of America is parking lots.”