Historic Moravian Bethlehem was officially designated as a National Historic Landmark District by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday.
The new designation provides an even higher level of visibility to the city’s historic downtown, meaning greater access to grant funds and, officials say, more tourism.
“I’m floating,” said an ecstatic Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of the nonprofit Historic Bethlehem Partnership, which tends to the key contributing buildings in the new national landmark district.
“This is so important to the city of Bethlehem,” said Donchez Mowers, who has been working at obtaining this designation for about 10 years. In May, she gave a presentation to the National Park System Advisory Board Landmarks Committee, which led to full advisory board approval in June.
The district comprises roughly 14 acres that were central to the original 18th Century settlement that founder Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf named Bethlehem. Contributing buildings include the Gemeinhaus – which is now home to the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem – and the 1762 Waterworks, which was the first pumped municipal water system in the country.
Both already were designated as National Historic Landmarks but, in the city, were alone in that official recognition. The new district designation will also encompass the Brethren’s House, the Single Sister’s House, the Central Moravian Church, the Tannery and all of the other original buildings along the Monocacy Creek that comprise the Colonial Industrial Quarter.
National Historic Landmarks are so designated because they are judged to possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States, according to the National Parks Service Website.
The website notes that some grant funding sources, such as the Save America’s Treasures Grant Program, which is administered by the Park Service, prioritize sites with the National Historic Landmark designation.
In the hierarchy of designations administered by the National Park Service, being a National Historic Landmark ranks higher than inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. While 85,000 sites across the country are in the National Register, less than 2,500 have been named National Historic Landmarks.
Historic Moravian Bethlehem is only the seventh National Historic Landmark District in Pennsylvania. The others are the Lukens Historic District in Coatesville, the Bedford Springs Hotel District in Bedford, Bryn Athyn in Montgomery County, and Rittenhouse Town, Colonial Germantown and Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia.
Donchez Mowers said she is hopeful that the new designation will strengthen Historic Moravian Bethlehem’s case to be named part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that would include five other 18th Century Moravian communities in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Northern Ireland and South Africa.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designates sites that have special physical or cultural significance. There are less than 1,000 of these sites in the world, including the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
There are 21 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty and Grand Canyon National Park.