Restoration of the 1880s Carriage House of the Mahlon Kemmerer estate, now Kemmerer Park in the historic district of Jim Thorpe, is nearing completion. A portion of the building will open as a rental apartment in the late fall, and in the spring of 2013, the remainder of the main floor will open as a museum.
Kemmerer Park covers most of Front Hill, an overlook of the Lehigh River coveted by the pioneers who founded and developed Mauch Chunk, the current Jim Thorpe. These early industrialists include: Josiah White, founder of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company; Edwin Douglas and John Leisenring, managers of LC&N: and Mahlon Kemmerer, a mining engineer and coal mine investor.
The Carriage House was built by Leisenring and given to Kemmerer when he married Leisenring's daughter, Annie.
The Carriage House housed the stables for the main house, a 25-plus room mansion. The mansion no longer exists. It is the current site of a basketball court. After Kemmerer died in 1926, his daughter donated the property to the people of Mauch Chunk. The property is managed by the Kemmerer Memorial Park Association.
The building, which was used for the Kemmerer's horses and carriages, was never designed for or used as housing. An adjacent foundation suggests a residence for the carriage driver. After the property was donated, it was used for storage.
Over the following years, the park property and pavilion have been used by the public and for a day camp. The property was maintained, and although the roof on the Carriage House was replaced in the 1990s, the new roof failed to do its job, or may have been vandalized. The roof leaked and the water rotted the wooden structure. A portion of the roof frame collapsed and what didn't immediately collapse, was in danger of collapsing.
The park association decided that the building was a hazard and voted to tear it down in 2008. That was when the Kemmerer Carriage House restoration project began.
John Drury, president of the Mauch Chunk Museum and a town preservationist, felt the building should be and could be saved. He received permission from the association to install a fence around it to prevent injury and discourage vandalism during the proposed restoration.
Association members Bob Handwerk, Edie Lukasevich, Ben Walbert and Barbara Miller met with the attorney for the borough of Jim Thorpe and worked out an agreement to allow Drury's Mauch Chunk Museum to raise money for and oversee the restoration of the Kemmerer Carriage House.
Drury enlisted support from Jack Sterling of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society. Together they assessed the property, noting the two biggest problems were the collapsed roof and a large hole in one wall, presumably the work of vandals.
With the help of Bill Allison, also of the historical society, students from Jim Thorpe Area High School, students from St. Joseph's Academy, and a local Scout troop, they cleaned up the site and, in particular, removed numerous bags that had not been disposed of during the previous roof replacement.
Drury raised money for the restoration by creating a Victorian Ball for the town of Jim Thorpe.
"We weren't going to make a lot of money from this ball, however we got lucky," he said, "because I invited the Kemmerer family and the Leisenring family, and they made significant contributions to get the project going."
With the kick-start funding, Drury sought bids for a new roof for the carriage house. Because of the harsh terrain, the first four roofers to inspect the property declined to bid.
"Finally, we got Jeff Willcox," Drury said. "He did the roofing job, and because of that, we let him continue on as general contractor. The project was started by George Colaviti."
The Carriage House was redesigned to include a museum and an apartment. The museum which will display photographs and show a video commemorating the Front Hill pioneers is planned to open to the public in the spring of 2013.
To accommodate the apartment, an electrical line was run to the building, a 425-foot deep well was bored, a grinder pump was installed and a 375-foot sewer line was connected to the public system.
The lighting has been installed on the building and on a new path from the Harry Packer mansion to the Carriage House. In honor of his leadership on the project, supporters are naming the new path Drury Lane.
To dissuade vandalism, a network of cameras is being installed. The system will consist of a number of cameras connected to a Wi-Fi link that can be viewable on the Internet.
A new access pathway is being built by Eagle Scout Bill Sterling.
"I'm clearing the debris, reshaping and leveling the path, and laying wood chips over it," he explained. "At the bottom, we're planning a bridge project. On top, I'm putting in a park bench."
The new pathway will allow access from Route 209 and from the Carbon County Parking Lot.
For the last 30 years, Bob Handwerk, a landscape architect and owner of the Harry Packer Mansion, has maintained the park. With the restoration nearing completion, help is needed to plant flowers and landscape the new area. Volunteers, who would like to be Friends of the Park, should contact Sterling at (570) 325-2849.