What better way to start a bright New Year, than with an old abandoned mansion! But this empty, grand Victorian mansion has a peculiar feature; for attached to its former kitchen on the south wing, is an abandoned, Art Deco Masonic Temple!
This rather unique duo of abandoned delights can be found in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Once, Bethlehem was one of the richest, most industrious cities in America. It was the headquarters of not only Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel company in the country, but the sprawling, Lehigh Valley Railroad.
One of the great, old railway companies, the Lehigh spread its reach from Buffalo, through Pennsylvania and down to New York City. Mostly used to transport rich seams of anthracite coal, it became known as the Route of the Black Diamond. Its headquarters were in Bethlehem, PA, and money flowed through the city, which soon became home to many grandiose mansions for the wealthy industrialists.
One such was Elisha Packer Wilbur, nephew and successor to Asa Packer, who founded the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
With his vast wealth, E.P. Wilbur decided to build a suitably opulent home on a hill overlooking the LeHigh River, and the railroad tracks that made his fortune. Built in 1863, his mansion resembled a modest sized castle, along with a tower and battlements.
The rest of the house was designed in a Victorian Gothic style, mixed with Italianate flourishes. With a sweeping driveway, twenty eight rooms, and stained glass from the design studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. With no expense spared, Wilbur’s mansion had one of the few telephones to be found in Bethlehem.
The Great Panic of 1893 gravely wounded the Lehigh Valley Railway. E.P. Wilbur left the company, dying in upstate New York in 1910. His mansion however was saved by an unlikely source– the Masons.
In 1925, the secret society, which had maintained a presence in Bethlehem since 1853, built a large, Art Deco temple, which they joined onto the Victorian mansion through it’s kitchen. The two architectural styles are in stark contrast to each other, and make for an unusual spectacle.
For nearly 90 years, the Masons conducted their meetings in the temple, and would use the grand mansion for social events.
However, the Masons would be rocked by scandal in 2013, when it was discovered that their banqueting manager, who had overseen events in the Wilbur mansion, had stolen a quarter of a million dollars from the Bethlehem Temple Association. With their savings drained, the Masons had to sell.
Today, the mansion stands empty, despite being sold in 2015. Kept in pristine condition by its Masonic owners, many of the ornate fittings installed by the former railroad baron are still there. Plans by the new owners are for the old mansion to be turned into apartments and office space. The Art Deco temple however seems beyond repair, and is due to be torn down. According to the developers, “decades of mold and the degradation of the structural steel make it unable to be saved.”
Whatever happens to the unlikely pair of empty buildings, they speak to a bygone era, when Bethlehem was a booming industry city, of coal, steel and railroads, almost all of which has long since gone.