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Ben Walbert talks about old buidlings for the Palmerton Area Historical Society

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Architect Ben Walbert talked about preserving old buildings at the historical society meeting.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Architect Ben Walbert talked about preserving old buildings at the historical society meeting.
Published March 17. 2010 05:00PM

Describing architect Ben Walbert's talk as a timely event, Secretary Betsy Burnhauser introduced him to the Palmerton Area Historical Society. She said it was timely because at the March 8 meeting it was said that a large part of Palmerton is eligible for the state historic register.

Walbert said old is a relative thing when it comes to buildings. In this country old is 250 to 300 years and in Italy it is 2,000 years.

Tastes change. A trend may be for colonial architecture and change to federal, Victorian, bungalow (there is a lot of this in Palmerton), and Walbert said he even likes some modern construction.

When he got out of school Victorian was frowned upon. He said Jim Thorpe, his hometown, has a lot of it lining its streets.

"Even row houses or something like Levittown are being restored," said Walbert.

He said when he travels it is to look at houses, not malls. No one area has more virtue than another when it comes to housing.

The best local example of preservation is the Asa Packer Mansion which still has the wallpaper and furniture from when the house was in use. "It is really quite marvelous," Walbert said.

Mount Vernon has also been preserved. In 1855 a group of women got together to save it. During the Civil War it was a "shambles." One proposal had been to tear it down and rebuild it in cast iron, but it is pretty much as George Washington saw it.

"Preservation is maintenance, doing repairs as necessary and keeping it dry. No radical changes should be made," said Walbert.

A second method of saving an old building is to restore it. Restoration has a long and honorable history. The Romans saved some monuments 2,000 years ago. In the United States it started with Independence Hall. A reception for the Marquis de Lafayette was held there, and Lafayette said it should be saved. The assembly room and tower were restored - a clock was added in the tower with a light so everyone could see the clock at night.

The signers' room was restored in 1920 with the final restoration in the 1960s. There is only one small piece of wood that remains from the time when the signers used the hall.

Little research was done because there were no standards for restoration. Later the width of the floor boards could be determined by the placement of nail holes. The founding fathers had colorful paint - what Walbert said would be considered "quite interesting" today.

For homes, something like a New England saltbox would be costly to go back to the original but from the 1920s on minimal changes have been made to houses.

Walbert said Palmerton is an industrial-type town with several architectural styles. It is unique as a company town with single, row and fine homes. "Urban planners know of this town because it is something that was done 100 years ago.

Another method of retaining an old building is to reconstruct it. The Groff House where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence was reconstructed for the bicentennial. There were photos to work with. On the street where Benjamin Franklin's house stood, the foundations were covered but the buildings were not reconstructed. Signs told what use each building or part of building was used for as interpretation. Walbert said that was an honest way of doing it.

Member Bill Johnson said records of Cape Breton Island were found in Paris and the area is still being rebuilt. Some Acadians had refused to move and built a fort. "When you walk through the gate you're in the early 1700s," said Johnson.

For historic structures there may be inventories for purposes of insurance that can be found. Death inventories may be as specific as "six dark green chairs," said Walbert.

Renovating has been going on since the 1600s. The (old) Lehigh County Courthouse is a cited example. It began as a federal-style building and was Victorianized over the years. The White House was drastically renovated after it was burned by the British in the War of 1812. Again in the 1940s it was gutted to the walls and redone. Jackie Kennedy made changes to the furnishings.

"We're working on the Carbon County Courthouse. Some changes are sympathetic but fire safety and accessibility standards are required," Walbert said.

The last method of preserving is adaptive reuse and the sample he used was near at hand. A bank building in Palmerton is now the public library where society meetings are held. Walbert said neither the original bank nor the library could afford to be built at today's prices, but when the bank was built in 1928 there was no central air and no sophisticated electrical work. Labor was cheap.

Some Zinc Company buildings have become office buildings and one is a school with little outside change.

"Historic preservation may have different faces, but something most everyone can agree on is that our environment is more pleasant because of it," Walbert said.

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