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A relic is dismantled

  • Workers from The Building Recyclers, Kutztown, dismantle the former St. Ann's convent on Bertsch Street in Lansford on Wednesday. Crews began tearing down the Queen Ann style mansion on Tuesday and expect to finish the job by Friday.
    Workers from The Building Recyclers, Kutztown, dismantle the former St. Ann's convent on Bertsch Street in Lansford on Wednesday. Crews began tearing down the Queen Ann style mansion on Tuesday and expect to finish the job by Friday.
Published November 05. 2009 05:00PM

The cross that for generations had drawn gazes upward to the roof of the turret on the former St. Ann's convent on East Bertsch Street in Lansford is askew Wednesday as workmen swing hammers and use chisels to pry off decorative wood trim.

The sharp-toothed bucket of an excavator bites into one of the 1920s mansion's red brick walls. Later, a crane plucks the domed roof off a three-story turret.

The arched window frames stare blindly, empty of stained glass. Tattered silver sheets of insulation droop from crumpled yellow siding, exposing swaths of scalloped white wood. Striped aluminum awnings, battered and flattened, hang precariously from the turret's third-story windows. Inside, a workman in a yellow hard hat can be seen through the gloom, hammering at a window frame, jarring it loose.

The destruction of the Queen Anne Style Victorian home, which began life as the Edward Thomas Mansion, is being razed by the Diocese of Allentown and its Catholic Senior Housing and Health Care Services agency to make way for a parking lot for residents of the subsidized apartments that are being built in the former St. Ann's Catholic School, behind the convent.

Of the $3 million cost of the project, $2.5 million is being paid for through the federal office of Housing and Urban Development.

The convent is expected to be leveled by week's end, said Gerald J. Delaney, project manager for Dolan Construction Inc., Reading, which is supervising the work. The apartments should be ready for tenants by mid-August.

The demolition is being done by The Building Recyclers, Kutztown, which will salvage and sell the wood, brick and other materials.

Frances Lazzaro, who attended St. Ann's school in the late 1930s, watched as bricks fell in clouds of red dust.

"I feel so saddened by it," she says. Lazzaro mourns the loss of the convent as she tells of a trip to Italy, where history is revered and empty churches stand, well-maintained, for generations.

The dismantling infuriates historian Dale Freudenberger, who works with the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, which, along with the Lansford Historical Society and Lansford Alive! community improvement organization, fought for two years to save the mansion.

"It is a sad day for Lansford and a sad day for preserving our local history in the Panther Valley" he says. "We are losing the finest and grandest home in this town, and probably the entire Panther Valley. This mansion was built in the Victorian Style during the early 1920s by Edward Thomas, a local storekeeper. For unknown reasons, the Thomas family only lived there less than a decade when the mansion was sold or gifted to the church for use as a convent."

The mansion was unique, he says.

"This was not your average Victorian home, this was an exceptional example. No expense was spared in the construction of this magnificent home. It included all the finest quality architectural elements both inside and out. The home's interior was quite grand with mostly ornate dark oak woodwork elements throughout. The interior included an ornate colonnade with carved oak columns between the front foyer and the front parlor, a geometric patterned oak beam ceiling in the foyer and front parlor, a winding open staircase with a large carved newel post at the bottom, built-in benches in various parts of the house, gorgeous stained glass windows, parquet floors, pocket doors, chair rails, plate rails and a cast iron food warming closet in the dining room, chandeliers, a peer mirror in the music room, fireplace, palladium style windows, and more," Freudenberger says.

He and the others who struggled against the demolition are also angry that it is being funded by tax dollars.

"This entire project is driven by public funding, not private funding" Freudenberger says. "Against the advice of these organizations, our local borough council voted to allow the demolition of the mansion for parking for more low income housing in Lansford. This is the last thing Lansford needs more of."

Council in September granted conditional approval to the diocese to raze the former convent to provide 11 parking spaces for the residents of the planned 17-unit apartment building.

Representatives of all three groups attended an August zoning hearing on the proposal and expressed their disapproval. At that hearing, Gordon W. Griffiths, director of Catholic Senior Housing Development and Management, said they spoke with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which said it was better to save one building than have both the school and the former convent demolished.

Attorney Tom Nanovic, who represented Catholic Senior Housing at that hearing, said both buildings were last used in 1999. The borough condemned the convent in October 2007.

The community groups worked hard to prevent the loss of the convent, which was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The groups worked with the Museum Commission.

"Although several great alternatives and opportunities were presented to them, the bottom line was that the developers wanted the house demolished and there was no changing their minds" says Freudenberger, who also works with the Lansford Historical Society. "Through the required mitigation agreement which PHMC required, the Lansford Historical Society was given permission to salvage architectural elements and other materials from the historic mansion before it was demolished. Items salvaged include stained glass windows, ornate carved oak woodwork and columns, fireplace mantle, peer mirror, cast iron warming oven, built in benches and other items of interest. The Historical Society will incorporate these items into exhibits in the new Lansford Historical Society Museum which is currently being developed at the Society's headquarters on east Bertsch Street above the Panther Valley Public Library."

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