Sayre Mansion, a visual reminder of Bethlehem’s lucrative railroad history, overlooks the South Side on Wyandotte Street, greeting cars crossing the Hill to Hill Bridge with its striking Gothic Revival-style exterior.
The brick-laced historic front, with a glass roof and modern windows, encourages Bethlehem visitors to seek out what’s inside: a bed-and-breakfast in one of the South Side’s 160-year-old “founding fathers’” mansions.
Sayre Mansion was built in 1858 by Robert Sayre, the chief engineer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, trustee of St. Luke’s Hospital and a charter trustee of Lehigh University.
The mansion is a beacon of Bethlehem’s rich history in steel production, reminding the public of what once reigned supreme at the bottom of South Mountain.
The first home in Fountain Hill
Sarah Trimmer, the general manager of Sayre Mansion, said it was built by Sayre as the first home in Fountain Hill, the richest neighborhood in the country at the time due to Bethlehem’s thriving steel industry.
In 1898, 40 years after its original construction, Sayre built an addition to the home, which included a three-story library that housed 15,000 books, a glass roof and a live-in librarian.
After Sayre’s death in 1907, the property was auctioned off and converted into a Lehigh fraternity house in 1914. During this time, Trimmer said the house was “sliced and diced” for its new occupants.
By the 1930s, the mansion was transformed into apartments, but it fell into such disrepair by 1990 that it was slated for demolition. But, John and Nora Capellano saw the property’s potential and restored it, renovating it into a B&B in 1993.
“Every day I walk through the door, I’m like, ‘Wow, thank you for still being here,’” Trimmer said. “Because there were other mansions that were torn down on the hill.”
Sayre’s wine cellar, office and dining room still occupy the original spaces in the mansion and are adorned with historically relevant furniture and restored elements, including original golden ceiling tiles.
Providing a space for Bethlehem visitors
As an accredited member of the Historic Hotels of America and Select Registry, Sayre Mansion’s primary service is lodging Bethlehem visitors.
The Genzlinger family purchased the property in 2002 and acquired the carriage house in 2005, which was rehabilitated to bring four more rooms onto the property.
The mansion is owned today as a part of Settlers Hospitality, a network of historic buildings that have been restored into inns. The company’s mission is to preserve, conserve and educate.
Jeanne Genzlinger, the founder of Settlers Hospitality, said when her family bought the mansion, business operations were low with an occupancy rate of about 20%.
As a Bethlehem native, Genzlinger used her connections to draw the community in and bring more foot traffic with tours and social events.
Today, the occupancy is around 60-70%.
Genzlinger said the mansion’s team keeps the business as successful as it is.
“It’s really a good team,” Genzlinger said. “They’re holding the place together, keeping it going. It’s doing pretty well.”
Justin Genzlinger, ‘99, the CEO of Settlers Hospitality, said the quality of guest experience leads the company’s core values and that none of the Mansion’s growth would be anything without the team.
Now boasting 23 rooms, the mansion hosts weddings, business meetings and various events for the South Side community. Justin Genzlinger said the tent outside the mansion that hosts larger events will soon be removed and replaced by a more permanent structure.
Trimmer said one of the property’s most popular events is a traditional afternoon English tea on Thursdays. For the Fourth of July, she said the mansion hosts a party in honor of Sayre.
The mansion also has partnerships with ArtsQuest, the city of Bethlehem and Lehigh University to host prominent figures that come through the city and to host families for community events such as Family Weekend and commencement.
The Mansion’s feature on “Ghost Hunters” in November 2022 on the Travel and Discovery channels proved to be wildly successful and brought an unexpected twist to the mansion’s brand.
Justin Genzlinger said the paranormal attraction was the “biggest surprise” for Settlers since it’s not a traditional theme the company strives toward. But he said he’s grateful for the number of new customers that resulted from the television appearances.
“They captured a lot of compelling evidence as well,” Trimmer said. “There’s no denying that there’s stuff here. It’s not really scary or terrifying. They’re not hurting us. I just feel like it’s their house and they were here first and we can all live together.”
Sayre Mansion, Trimmer said, has been named one of the state’s top “Romantic Inns” and a part of the “Top Haunted Places to Visit.”
Trimmer accredits these accolades to the mansion’s staff of 60 dedicated employees.
“I’m just so proud of the work that my team does here,” Trimmer said. “We’re a very small team, considering the workload that we accomplish on any given day. … we all wear each other’s hats and keep this place going 24/7sayr at 160 years old.”
Robert Sayre’s South Side legacy
Photos of Sayre and his family hang in picture frames and rest in bookcases scattered throughout the mansion, reminding guests of whom they have to thank for their accommodations.
Born in 1924, Sayre came to Bethlehem from Jim Thorpe at a request from his friend, Asa Packer, to be the chief engineer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. He began growing his family and roots in the community.
When Sayre built his mansion, he set the scene for dozens more railroad heirs to build their homes around Wyandotte Street in the coming years.
Trimmer said Sayre was heavily involved in the founding and funding of Lehigh but largely goes unaccredited.
Sayre noted details about the complexities of the university’s founding in his pocket diaries, with details as small as what stones were used to build the buildings.
According to the Diaries of Robert Heysham Sayre, Sayre was Packer’s right-hand man. It was he who saved Lehigh from closing its doors as a result of the Panic of 1893 by disestablishing the university from the Cathedral Church of the Nativity to secure state aid.
Trimmer said Sayre’s generosity stemmed beyond Lehigh and into the founding of St. Luke’s and the Cathedral Church of the Nativity.
When the mansion was auctioned off, upwards of 3,000 cigars were found in his wine cellar, evidence of his plethora of hosting and social obligations.
Just like Sayre, Trimmer said she hopes the mansion becomes a place where people can continuously return for memories and to understand how critical Sayre is to South Side’s history.
“I think it’s wonderful that we get to preserve his legacy and keep his name alive because he was integral to so many things,” Trimmer said.
Justin Genzlinger said he feels personally connected to the property and Sayre himself as a descendant of steelworkers and he appreciates his family’s connection to the mansion’s history.
“Sayre’s connection to Bethlehem Steel ties the mansion’s history with our own,” Justin Genzlinger said. “It’s definitely a motivating factor to want to do more in the area because it’s a part of our personal connection.”