Remembering the Cross Keys Hotel
In 1773, Henry Hagenbuch (b. 1736, d. 1803), purchased a lot 60 feet wide by 230 feet deep at the corner of James and Hamilton Streets within the newly formed city of Northampton Town, Pennsylvania. Northampton Town was founded by William Allen in 1762 near a bend in the Lehigh River. It was Allen’s hope that the city would eventually rival Easton and become the seat of Northampton County. Instead, Northampton Town was renamed Allentown in 1812, and in 1838 it was named the seat of Lehigh County.
Henry, who was the eldest son of Andreas Hagenbuch (b. 1715, d. 1785), built a tavern on his parcel—making it one of the first such establishments in the area. No description of the original building has been found, although later histories have described it as popular place for food, drink, and lodging. The earliest known mention of the tavern by name comes from an 1838 newspaper, which refers to it as “Hagenbuch’s Wirthshaus.”
In 1803, Henry died and the tavern passed to his son Jacob (b. 1765, d. 1811), then to his grandson Jacob (b. 1797, d. 1870), and finally to his great grandsons Benjamin J. (b. 1823, d. 1889) and Charles (b. 1827, 1901). By the mid-1800s, it is believed that the original tavern had been expanded and renamed the Cross Keys Hotel. Eventually, in an effort to diversify their business, brothers Benjamin and Charles Hagenbuch opened Allentown’s first opera house on the same block as the hotel.
Two images have been found which give a sense of the Cross Keys Hotel’s appearance around 1870. The first is a copy of a painting done by Frank Wilt. In an effort to preserve the history of Allentown, Frank Wilt painted several scenes that he remembered from his youth. In the below image, we can see the Cross Keys Hotel at the corner of 8th and Hamilton Streets (James Street was renamed 8th Street in the 1800s).
An image of the painting was published in The Morning Call in 1940 with the following description:
The photographic memory of Frank Wilt, of Allentown, recalls for us a picture of Eighth and Hamilton Sts. as he saw it in 1870. The scene pictured here shows the intersection of 8th and Hamilton Sts. looking toward the northwest. The corner building was the Cross Keys Hotel, a famous hostelry of the day. The hotel was owned by the father of Jerome and Ollie Gernert and was run by the former. About 1870 it appeared as pictured above, but sometime later a balcony was added and a small store front built into the west end of the building. The fence carrying circus signs and other advertising gave way to the building known as the Hagenbuch Opera House, later the Bowen Grocery. Next to it was built the plumbing establishment of Schaffer and Witlenbech.
The pump shown next to the rough curbing was later covered, but was rediscovered when Hamilton St. was improved with paving many years after its use had been discontinued. A small white building shown in the painting was a candy store and later gave way to the building which housed P. Hersh Hardware Co. The store which was the forerunner of the Hersh Hardware Co., Siegfried and Hagenbuch, has an awning extending over the pavement to the curb line.
By examining Wilt’s image, we can see that the Cross Keys Hotel was a three story structure, likely made of brick, that had a second wing to the back. There were also stables behind the building. An illustration from 1879 provides additional details about the structure.
The above illustration confirms Wilt’s memory that the Cross Keys Hotel was three stories and included a back wing to create an L-shaped design. It also shows that the once open lot to the left of the hotel was developed by 1879. In fact, the Hagenbuch Opera House was built there in 1870. It closed in 1888 and was converted into the Bowen Grocery store, which was demolished in 1926.
The Hagenbuch family sold the Cross Keys Hotel to Robert Gernert in 1874. In the 1890s, it was sold again—this time to Benjamin T. Keyser and J. Francis Hinkle—who renovated the aging establishment in 1896. A newspaper article about the upgrades describes the building as having a bar room and restaurant on the first floor outfitted with new electric ceiling fans. It also mentions that the hotel had 64 bedrooms with new marble wash stands and an expanded stable with room for 200 horses!
Nevertheless, the Cross Keys Hotel continued to struggle, and in 1901 Nathan A. Haas bought the building for $76,000 (about $2.3 million in today’s money). At that time, the sale was rumored to be the highest amount ever paid for real estate in Allentown. The hotel’s lot measured 60 feet wide by 110 feet deep, showing that it had been subdivided at some point.
Haas had no intention of running the Cross Keys Hotel. Instead, he sold the building’s contents in 1902 and tore down the old structure. In its place, he erected a new, five story office building. Today, this building still stands at the corner of 8th and Hamilton Streets in Allentown, PA.
More remains to be discovered about the Cross Keys Hotel and its early history as Hagenbuch’s Wirthshaus. Through our continued research, it is hoped that we may uncover new imagery and additional details that will provide a clearer picture of this unique chapter in Hagenbuch family history.
Special thanks to Jean McLane who wrote us and pointed out that the original name of the Cross Keys Hotel was Hagenbuch’s Wirthshaus (not “Mirthshaus” as was earlier reported). A Wirthshaus—modern spelling Wirtshaus—is a tavern serving beer and light meals.