NEW BETHLEHEM – One of the region’s most notable and historic buildings could soon become the property of a local group tasked with preserving local history.
The Redbank Valley Historical Society has been in talks for the past several months with Northwest Savings Bank about acquiring the former bank branch building in downtown New Bethlehem.
“We started working on it in September,” historical society president Cindy Morgan said, noting that it was then that the bank announced it would close its New Bethlehem branch in December 2020. She said she reached out to the Warren-based bank, which said it would be willing to give the property at the corner of Broad and Lafayette streets to a local non-profit organization.
Opened in 1940, the bank has been a local landmark known for its tall bell tower, its ornate high-ceiling lobby area and the imposing vintage walk-in vault. The lower level of the building, once used by a number of community organizations, is home to Little Bird Preschool. The building was the third and final home of the First National Bank in New Bethlehem. It became a First Seneca Bank in the 1970s, and later became part of the Pittsburgh-based Integra before its acquisition by Northwest Savings Bank.
Over the last several months, Morgan said the historical society has sought estimates from contractors to make repairs to the clock tower. She said that although previous estimates obtained by the bank were much higher, contractors now said repairs could be made to the tower for less than $100,000.
Morgan also said she has worked with the bank to obtain average utility and maintenance costs for the building, in order to see if it is feasible for the historical society to take ownership and pay the bills.
“They want to give us the building, but then you have to start paying the gas and electric,” she said.
To gauge interest in the society and the larger community as a whole, Morgan said letters were sent out last week seeking input on whether people are in favor of the society owning the building, and, if support is there, is there volunteer and monetary support for the endeavor.
“We want to get the feel from the people out there,” she said.
Morgan noted that the process was delayed some by the society’s release of its long-anticipated big book of local history in December, as well as the restrictions that have come from the pandemic, limiting face-to-face meetings with society board members.
Despite the hurdles, Morgan said she feels the building and the society would be a great fit with each other, and the group has a number of possible ideas in mind for the historic bank property.
“I think it would be the greatest place for a historical society,” she said, explaining that she would like to see the large building used for community meetings, historical programs for children and adults, community events such as the society’s quilt show, and other performing arts programs. She also said the building could become home to the society’s genealogy center, as well as local history displays.
“There are a lot of things the building could be used for,” she said.
Even though work is needed to shore up the clock tower, Morgan said Northwest has kept the building in very good condition overall, with only some other minor repairs and improvements needed. She said an engineer went through the property to assess the situation on behalf of the society.
Morgan is encouraging anyone from the community to offer their input on the proposal, as well as anyone who might be willing to support the group financially or by volunteering.
“We really need to know if we can make this work. It’s coming down to the line,” she said, noting that the society must make a decision on the property by the end of March. “If we do it, we’re going to need volunteers.”
If the society does take ownership, she said it would likely happen in June.
“We want to preserve our local history,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building. People don’t want to see it chopped up, or the tower removed. We have a heritage we hope can be preserved for future generations.”
Ideas and input on the society’s ownership of the former bank property can be sent to Morgan at email@example.com, or by calling her at (814) 221-6225. Information can also be sent to her at 248 Walker Flat Road, Mayport, PA 16240.