Bed Check: Uncovering the history of a Pennsylvania hotel


The restaurant 1741 on the Terrace, connected to the Hotel Bethlehem, is distinguished by its original red tile floor. (Zofia Smardz/The Washington Post)
August 31, 2012

A bi-weekly staff review of East Coast and regional lodgings.

“Be sure to check out the floor in the fancy restaurant,” urged my friend Martha when I told her that we’d be staying overnight at the grand hotel in her home town of Bethlehem, Pa. “It was all carpeted over when I was a little kid, but now they’ve uncovered the Moravian tiles.”

And so I’m staring at the polished red tiles beneath my feet as I make my way to our table in the Hotel Bethlehem’s 1741 on the Terrace restaurant. And I’m thinking, now who would cover up such a stupendous floor?

True, it’s a slick surface. It might, I muse, be a little treacherous in stilettos.

Wait. What? Stilettos? What am I thinking? I’ll bet it’s the rare spike heel that has stepped on these tiles of late. I mean, who really dresses up much for dinner anymore? Especially in a not-so-big Pennsylvania town whose glory days are, well, pretty much behind it?

Not our fellow diners on this summer Sunday evening, anyway. Despite the restaurant’s Palladian-windowed elegance, the smiley group of seniors two tables over are cazh-as-can-be, in shorts and athletic shoes (good for gripping those tiles!). Ditto the young couple in the corner of the cavernous, high-high-high-ceilinged space that was originally the hotel veranda.

Oh well. Back to that floor. I make it across without incident in my sensible two-inch heels, spying, every few feet, a tile with a little picture stamped into it — here’s a church, over there a Pinta-style caravel, just a little farther a sheaf of wheat. The tiles, made by the still-operating Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, a National Historic Landmark in Doylestown, Pa., are small, maybe three inches square, giving the floor an intricate, textured look. And the slight unevenness testifies to its age. That would be somewhere in the vicinity of 90 years, as the Hotel Bethlehem — oh pardon me, the Historic Hotel Bethlehem; they stress that “historic” thing, and I don’t blame them — opened in 1922.

It’s a gorgeous floor, yessiree. And yet for at least 40 years, can you imagine, it was smothered by some generic hotel carpeting. Until one day — looky here! — a curling corner revealed the hidden treasure beneath. (This information comes courtesy of hotel historian Natalie Bock, who tells you all about the floor’s rediscovery in an informational video that runs in a continuous loop on your in-room flat-screen TV.)

Obviously, the tiles are a big selling point. But there’s lots more to recommend the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, trust me. There’s all the history, for one thing. To begin with, the 128-room hostelry stands on a most historic spot: the site of the first house in town, where a group of Moravian missionaries gathered on Christmas Eve 1741 and formally named their settlement Bethlehem. Later, a graceful-looking Moravian-run hotel called the Golden Eagle occupied the same site.

The current hotel came much later, during the heyday of Bethlehem Steel, when the company’s president, Charles M. Schwab, wanted an elegant place where he could put up his many VIP visitors. (Photos of the big-name guests who’ve dropped in over the years — Thomas Edison! Four presidents! Winston Churchill! Frankie Avalon! Ozzy Osbourne! Lots more! — cover the walls of the lobby bar and restaurant, the Tap Room.)

My favorite historical touch: the door to the Prohibition-era speakeasy that stands open on the lower level. Oooh, I wish we could go in. But we can’t. Nowadays, the only speakeasy behind the distinctive arched portal, once hidden by another door, is the life-size photo of an old-fashioned, patron-filled bar that fills the doorway (the space in back belongs to housekeeping now).

Not quite so high on my appreciation scale, alas, were our room’s historic hotel dimensions: i.e., not very big. It wasn’t really small, mind you, but so easily filled up by the king-size bed and a couch that there was no comfortable place to put our suitcases. And the closet was only about six inches deep.

Nevertheless, the amenities were all there — a Keurig coffeemaker, a large TV, free WiFi. And the bathroom was lovely; all the bathrooms, our friend Ms. Bock informed us, have been renovated with period fixtures and Italian marble “from the same vein that Michelangelo used.”

Very nice. But here’s the best thing. I’d been a little put out that we’d been tucked away in a room in a back corner of the top floor. But then I found out that the room right across the hall, No. 932, is the hotel’s very own haunted guest room. True, we never heard a poltergeistery peep in the night. (“That’s one mighty quiet ghost,” quipped my husband.) But when a hotel or inn has been around long enough to lay claim to a shade-filled past, you know you’re simply swimming in history.

And I just love that.

details

Historic Hotel Bethlehem

437 Main St.

Bethlehem, Pa.

610-625-5000

www.hotelbethlehem.com

Rooms from $139.

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