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.
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
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.
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.
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.