by Sean Kenney
Allentown is a city of generational change, evolving from a frontier settlement to an industrial powerhouse, and then during deindustrialization falling into “decline.” Today it is undergoing controversial economic and neighborhood change. There is new urban development and “renewal,” the city has established the NIZ (Neighborhood Improvement Zone), a special business friendly tax district that is supposed to encourage the redevelopment of the downtown. With the demolition of an entire center city block and the building of the new PPL Center, and the building of high end condos and apartments on the grounds of formerly mostly rented housing, people are being displaced and concerns of gentrifying and Modernity-at-what-costs are being posited.
The city has a strong history of great works and structures that emblemize a decade or period of Allentown’s development as a city. Focusing on the development of the 8th street bridge, I seek to study how Modernity, Modernization, and Urban development/planning, has a historical component and a material effect on the social and personal lives of its inhabitants. In this project I have created a definition of modernity within a city as “An existence, or the perception of an existence, that a city sits at the peak or close to the peak of current achievement in the arts and sciences.” I find that while the 8th Street Bridge served as a symbol for modernity in Allentown, Harry Trexler, the developer of the bridge, used the theme of modernity and great works to generate goodwill as a sometimes controversial businessman, and to create a positive legacy for himself.
In the city of Allentown one of the most notable landmarks is the Albertus L. Meyers Bridge, more often referred to as the Allentown Bridge or the 8th street Bridge. This bridge is cemented in Allentown culture and history as an important and monumental project. The bridge not only unites Allentown and South Allentown, but is a work of aesthetic art and stands as a monument of its own.
For the conduction of this project my data will be mostly based off of newspaper articles regarding the Allentown 8th Street Bridge. There are two main news companies I have sourced my data from The Allentown Leader and The Allentown Democrat. The information contained in these news articles references who the main sources of capital are, how the companies are organized, who won the contracts to build, who owned the companies who won the contracts, the time lines of building, the materials used and the companies who sourced the materials.
Images 1 and 2 are citations from news articles regarding the formation of a new company, The Allentown Bridge Co. this company was founded as a part of the Lehigh Valley Transit Co. and headed by Harry C. Trexler. The company is invested in completing the Allentown Bridge.
The bridge’s foundations were began by the Allentown and South Allentown bridge company but the bridge was never built. The Allentown and South Allentown Bridge Company was unable to follow through with the construction. In 1906 however, Harry C. Trexler reorganizes the company as a subsidiary under the Lehigh Valley Transit Co. The Allentown Bridge Co is founded to work towards the bridge formation with the addition of trolley rails operated by the Lehigh Valley Transit Co. these trolley rails will connect with routes to Philadelphia.
This bridge gains the approval of the City after a few years and construction begins in 1912 with bids accepted and approvals granted. The Bridge is to be constructed in a viaduct style using Portland cement.
Image 3 is a citation from the Allentown Leader that shows as of 1900 Harry C Trexler was president of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. This company was one of the founding members of the Portland Cement Association, a non-profit organization created in 1902 to promote the construction of Cement roads and structures. In Image 4 there is an advertisement from the Portland Cement Association featuring the Allentown Bridge as a work featuring its cement. Looking at Image 5, we can see that the Bridge was completed and opened in November of 1913.
The descriptions in Images 6 and 7 showcase how the 8th street Bridge is viewed by Allentown and how it is supposed to be viewed by the world, “The Greatest Structure Of Its Kind in the U.S.” The bridge is outfitted with electricity in ornately designed lamps, reflecting the convergence of new technology with the ornate arts and fashion (Image 8). The bridge is a spectacle and a testament to the city’s worth.
A modern work creates and sets a record by which a modern city becomes a standard of excellence. From this definition we can see that the Allentown Bridge is an embodiment of a modern work and that its purpose was to create a work of modernity.
While his funding and development of the bridge is established and discussed, his motive for building it is less so. As a business magnate he had a few controversies, two instances on Trexler’s record are connecting an illegal water main to the Allentown water supply, and using state police to end a strike. The illegal water main supplied his development, and the state police shot and wounded a 16 year old boy. Both of these instances caused a blight on Trexler’s record, after the water main incident Trexler directly offered to build a public park as reparations and that park still exists today as West Park (Whelan, 2004). This suggests the use of public works as a way of generating goodwill.
Despite all of this, and perhaps because of it, Harry Trexler worked to propel Allentown into modernity. Countless works of his are still renowned for their contributions to Allentown’s history and landscape. Cementing his legacy as a benevolent business magnate who worked to beautify and improve the city, his works demonstrated goodwill to the city and generated goodwill from the public. His works have worked to directly and indirectly cement his legacy as a progressive force within Allentown.
Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London .: Verso, 2010.
Certeau, Michel De. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Steiner, Uwe. Walter Benjamin – An Introduction to His Work and Thought. Translated by Michael Winkler. Chicago, IL: University OF CHICAGO Press, 2010.
The Allentown Democrat, newspapers.com, Ancestry
The Allentown Leader, newspapers.com, Ancestry
Whelan, Frank. Harry C. Trexler, His Life and Legacy. Allentown, PA: Lehigh County Historical Society, 2004.