Preserving Historic Landmarks in Mauch Chunk

Waking Up the Sleeping Bear Didn't Happen Overnight
By Elissa G. Garofalo

As an ambitious young planner, I heard Bruce Conrad speak at a 1980 presentation in Scranton City Hall. He addressed a group of burgeoning Lackawanna County preservationists, speaking of an idea I had only read about… you can bring old towns back to life WITHOUT tearing them down. As Carbon County’s Director of Planning & Development, Bruce mentioned Jim Thorpe was chosen as one of six Pennsylvania towns and 30 nationwide to pilot the National Trust for Historic Preservation innovative “Main Street” program.

At the time, I never heard of Jim Thorpe but soon learned the town formerly known as “Mauch Chunk” was nestled strategically between three mountains along the Lehigh River. Jim Thorpe’s location always played an important role in its development. The Upper Grand met the Lower Division of the Lehigh Canal here, creating an early navigation system that extended from White Haven to Easton. As a result many nationally significant structures remained.

In the bicentennial spirit, several individual structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Place and the Old Mauch Chunk National Historic District was established in 1977. The Asa Packer Mansion and Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church were designated National Historic Landmarks in 1986 and 1987. The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor which encompasses the entire historic transportation system was established by Congress in 1988.

Largely through Bruce’s foresight, the historic district and individual sites were recognized. He also convinced Jim Thorpe Borough Council President, Leo “Chubby” O’Donnell to join forces with the County Redevelopment Authority and plan for Jim Thorpe’s revitalization. They hired prestigious Philadelphia planners, Venturi Rauch & Scott Brown. Like so many others, Denise Scott Brown fell in love with Old Mauch Chunk, the gritty former transportation center with a wealth of Victorian architectural treasures.

All this national recognition came about as the result of the early vision and sheer tenacity of local pioneers and transplanted upstarts. Agnes McCartney is most associated with the resurgence of tourism in Carbon County and Jim Thorpe. Recognized as a tireless promoter, she often contributed her own funds to events and projects when others would not. Mrs. McCartney was also the County’s first planning director and hired a young New Englander who went on to succeed her – Bruce Conrad.

When I arrived to work on Jim Thorpe’s Main Street project in 1981, I found a group of very industrious women committed to seeing the Mauch Chunk Opera House restored - Gert Apfelbaum, Helen Dougherty, Josie Schatzel, Bea Chain, Laura Thomas and others. I also found the Dimmick Library devastated by fire but with an equally committed board insisting it be rebuilt on site. Bruce seemed to be leading them all.

Since then, Jim Thorpe’s journey from a sleepy bedroom community has been slow and steady. The following larger, signature projects got people looking up at cornices:

- Navigation Building - Penrose Properties used historic preservation tax credits to help finance this adaptive re-use for senior citizen housing.

- IOOF Building - Bruce Conrad and artist Jane Mitchell purchased it and had it 100% occupied by 1981.

- Former CNJ Passenger Station and Race Street properties - A non-profit headed by Agnes McCartney, stabilized and rehabbed them.

- Stone Row – Japanese artist Shozo Nagano established his studio and Gloria Bubeck opened a small quilt shop.

- Former FOE and Vathis Buidlings - Tom and Betty Lou McBride stabilized and began restoring the buildings where theTreasure Shop and Anne’s Early Attic are now located.

- Hooven Mercantile Building – Fred Manning used historic preservation tax credits to convert a fur warehouse to retail space.

Reinvestment by property owners, with guidance and very small grants from the Main Street project, got others to think and act:

- The Dugan’s replaced their garish lighted signs with wooden ones and re-painted to highlight architectural details.

-The period paint scheme and façade restoration at The Treasure Shop became a whole-town effort as passersby commented on various details.

-The Hermans at Four Season’s Sporting Goods repainted their building and replaced signs.

- Bob & Pat Handwerk began restoring and converting the Harry Packer Mansion into a B&B.

- Later in the 80s Chatelaine’s, Blue Mountain Sports, and Ben and Carole Walbert joined in.

- Finally, 1989 brought major private investment when John Drury and family resurrected the old American Hotel into the Inn at Jim Thorpe.

In reality, Jim Thorpe benefited from many years of benign neglect and a poor economy. Between the 50s and 70s there were no funds to renovate and destroy what we now know are architectural treasures. Old Mauch Chunk’s resurrection occurred one building, one sign, and one paint job at a time. It took many pioneers to forge ahead and wake this sleeping bear.














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