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Bringing back the spirit

One of downtown Bethlehem’s most imposing buildings is being remade at 525 Main St. with extensive renovations that include a new elevator. After being delayed due to the COVID crisis, work should be completed by the end of the year.

The first floor will be retail. One new store will be occupied by ArtsQuest, and another by Domaci, a furniture and decor provider. Both are expected to open by the end of November. There will also be nine B&B units included in the five floors, called Lofts on Main.

The upper exterior will remain the same, with its fancy, green-trimmed cupolas jutting from the roof. On the side of the building you can see the faded letters “Steinway Pianos Huff Music,” a reminder of the store that used to be on the second floor.

“The building has greatly changed over the course of history,” said architect Fred Bonsall in a phone conversation. The exterior is being redone in a historic fashion.

“The new facade harkens back to the Victorian period of the original building,” says Bonsall, a principal at Serfass Construction. “It is quaint, not overly ornate, but not modern.”

Because of its significance, Bonsall said last month at a meeting of Bethlehem’s Historic and Architectural Review Board, “It is an honor for us to do that building.”

Husband and wife Jay Brew and Mary Ellen Williams bought the property two years ago.

“We like to collect old houses and redo them,” Brew said at his Bethlehem home on Market Street. “We try to bring back the spirit of the houses. The Main Street building was tired and not fully utilized.”

The couple have retained the original maple and pine floors, decorative window glass, many of the light fixtures, and all of the original doors. Brew estimates that the cost of the renovations will be about a million and a half dollars.

525 Main was originally known as the Myers Building.

“In 1892 George H. Myers, director of the Bethlehem Iron Company, the First National Bank, and the Lehigh Valley Railroad, built this building, then the largest building in the Lehigh Valley,” according to the willis-g-hale.tumblr.com website. “Five stories high and built of Milford pink granite, it was designed by Philadelphia architect Willis G. Hale, whose flamboyant, highly ornate style was popular in the 1880s and 1890s.”

“Myers built the most modern building in downtown Bethlehem.” Brew said. “There were fireplaces on every floor, but no sign that they were ever used. A number of them were closed off. They were built just as steam heating was coming in.”

There was some unused space and sealed off areas. The fifth floor had not been used since the 1940s.

Soldiers were billeted on the top fifth floor. Williams said pinups from that time were still on the walls.

“Bethlehem Steel was a target,” Brew said. Over 30,000 people worked at the plant during World War II, and the company was then the United States’ largest military contractor.

Unfortunately, Brew said that the tunnels rumored to have been built by the Moravian community do not exist in the basement, which will be used for storage.

Brew and Williams also own the Bethlehem B&B properties the Christmas City Mansion, the J.L. Mott Mansion and the Chandler House, listed under the name of their firm Dr. & Sir LLC. Williams is a medical doctor and the vocalist for the jazz cabaret group Ginger and the Schnappes.

“There is a misunderstanding about what we are trying to do,” said Brew, who wants to disassociate himself from Airbnb landlords who do not screen renters. The couple say they are careful about customers.

“We have turned away hundreds of thousands of dollars in business from clients we were unsure about,” Williams said. They use the online Airbnb rental marketplace.

“We want to keep these properties at the highest level,” Blue said. “We are working to preserve these houses and preserve the green space.”

Profits from their B&Bs are donated to ArtsQuest. The retail space will be ArtsQuest’s first occupancy on the north side of Bethlehem. It had a precursor with a merchandise tent in front of the Main Street building during this year’s Musikfest. The new store will offer merchandise that was formerly in the first floor gift shop at SteelStacks on Bethlehem’s Southside, which was recently removed to accommodate a new bar, restaurant and performance space.

“We have a new store at the Visitors Center at SteelStacks, but this will also take over some of the retail opportunity,” said Jon Lunger, ArtsQuest’s director of marketing, in a Zoom conference. “We will have ticket sales to ArtsQuest events and products from our Bethlehem Steel line. Also, for the first time, products from ArtsQuest Glassblowing Studio will always be available.

“This will give us a chance to be directly involved with our business partners of the Northside,” Lunger added. “We have wanted to be a more active participant. By having a year round presence, we can participate in events like the Harvest Festival and the Mother’s Day Fine Art and Craft Show.”

The new location represents ArtsQuest’s resilience in overcoming its revenue losses due to the COVID crisis.

“Our motto during this time has been ‘adapt and overcome,’” said Selena Lavonier, ArtsQuest’s senior director of advancement, via Zoom. “We have been continuing programming during difficult times. Opportunities like this have been made possible by the generous support of our volunteers, vendors, and sponsors, helping us to do a tremendous job of pivoting.”

Owners Jay Brew and Dr. Mary Ellen Williams purchased 525 Main St. in late 2017 and are investing $1.5 million in building renovations, according to Brew. Facade improvements to the first floor retail will create the effect of the original facade, Williams says.
Lettering on the north side of the building advertising one-time building tenant Huff Music will remain.
Interior renovations continue as worker Reos Ivette paints retail space on the first floor.
The basement, which will provide storage space for tenants, also contains the original heater for the building, nicknamed “Bertha.”
The second floor has three lofts and retains the original pine wood flooring.
Scaffolding surrounds a newly constructed exterior elevator tower.
This southwest office space was used as a board room by the board charged with construction of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, providing a view from which progress could be observed.
Original doors are being retained throughout the building.
press photos by dana grubb Owner Jay Brew demonstrates a swivel window at one of the upper floor balconies. The ‘bullet' glass in this window is original to the building. More photos on A2. Story continues on A3.