Gemeinhaus and Moravian Museum of Bethlehem
Built between 1741 and 1743, the Gemeinhaus (community house) is thought to be the oldest log structure in continuous use in the U.S. Built by the Moravians who founded the town of Bethlehem, it served as their communal living and worship residence until other quarters were built. It is also the birthplace of famous botanist and mycologist, Lewis David von Schweinitz, known as the Father of American Mycology (study of fungi). A wonderful example of German-colonial architecture, the Gemeinhaus became the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem in 1966 and remains so to this day. It conducts guided group tours, by appointment, throughout the year. The Gemeinhaus was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and is part of Bethlehem’s larger Moravian Historic District.
Backstory and Context
The Moravian religion is a German Protestant denomination with roots that go back as far as the early 15th century and the protest movement led by Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake as a religious heretic in 1415. Known initially as Bohemian Brethren or the Unity of the Brethren, its followers became known as Moravians after they fled Moravia for Saxony, to escape religious persecution in 1722. Known for their ecumenicalism, deep individual piety and missionary zeal, groups began immigrating to America in the early 18th century, to include the group that founded Bethlehem in 1741.
After purchasing land where the Monocacy Creek flows into the Lehigh River, the Moravians built their “Frist House” where the Hotel Bethlehem now sits. They soon outgrew that dwelling and began construction on the Gemeinhaus the same year, 1741. Built in two stages, the communal building was completed in 1743 and became the location where roughly 80 Moravians lived, worked, learned, cooked, ate, and worshiped. Built of hewn white oak logs, the 2.5 story structure contained 12 rooms, two dormitories, and a small chapel or Saal. That chapel is now the oldest Moravian Saal on the globe and was visited by the man who gave Bethlehem its name, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.
Eventually, church members constructed their own residences and the Gemeinhaus became primarily the home to church officials and their families. The community gradually outgrew the building’s small Saal and a new chapel was added to the Gemeinhaus in 1751. It was painted red in the mid-1770s and covered with stucco in 1777 which was then removed and replaced with the current clapboard in 1868. In later years, it also became home to single Moravian women, widows and an ecumenical group known as the King’s Daughters.
In 1780, Lewis David von Schweinitz was born in the Gemeinhaus as his father was a member of the Moravian clergy. After being educated at nearby Nazareth, Schweinitz traveled to Germany where he attended a Moravian seminary, taught at the Moravian Academy in Niesky and was ordained a deacon in 1808. He returned to America in 1812, spreading the faith to Salem, North Carolina. All the while, Schweinitz developed and cultivated an undying interest in fungi. This scientific curiosity led to his studying, collecting, describing and categorizing thousands of species of, not only fungi, but mosses, lichen, ferns and flowering plants. He eventually returned to Bethlehem and published numerous works on his studies. He died there in 1834. It was largely due to his time spent there that the Gemeinhaus was once refered to as the Lewis David von Schweintiz Residence and the primary reason it achieved National Landmark Status.
Sheire, James. "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form." United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service. March, 1975. Accessed January 30, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NHLS/75001658_text
Radzievich, Nicole. "Bethlehem's Gemeinhaus celebrates 275th birthday." Morning Call. September 15, 2016. Accessed January 30, 2019. http://www.mcall.com/news/local/bethlehem/mc-bethlehem-275-anniversary-gemeinhaus-20160915-story.html
"Moravian Museum of Bethlehem." Historic Bethlehem. Accessed January 30, 2019. https://historicbethlehem.org/?historic-site=moravian-museum
Adams, Charles. "A Day Away: The 'Little Town of Bethlehem.'" Reading Eagle. December 6, 2017. Accessed January 30, 2019. https://www.readingeagle.com/weekend/article/a-day-away-the-little-town-of-bethlehem