A salute to the Samler Building, Lebanon’s downtown icon

7 min read2,031 views and 329 shares Posted November 7, 2019

With its distinctive conical roof and name wrapped around its tower in copper letters, the Samler Building has been making necks crane for over 125 years.

The property is prime real estate in the heart of Lebanon’s downtown section, and as such, has been home to a number of businesses and organizations. Its story begins not with Louis Samler, the man whose name has adorned its facade for almost 100 years, but rather Lyman Nutting, a prominent Lebanon businessman who would never live to see his project brought to completion.

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The Samler Building’s copper fittings have long since oxidized into verdigris, the same process that gave the Statue of Liberty its famous green. (Cheyenne Tobias)

The Lyman Nutting era

Lyman Nutting was born in 1824 in Augusta, Maine. In his youth, he was one of the “forty-niners” that split for California in 1849, searching for gold in them thar hills. Whether he actually made money from gold discoveries or through some other means is unclear, but Nutting nevertheless returned to the east (specifically, Pine Grove) with enough money to begin building a fortune.

Nutting further grew his wealth with a series of careful investments in the coal and iron businesses, and eventually moved to Lebanon in the 1870s. He resided in a house on 3rd and Chestnut Streets. Nutting had plans for making his mark on the city—one of his purchases was the county jail that stood on the site now occupied by the Lebanon Farmers Market, and he along with several other local businessmen wished to transform the address into a market and opera house. Though this wish has been partially fulfilled in spirit even today, it’s not Nutting’s most enduring legacy.

When Nutting moved to Lebanon, the southwest corner of 8th and Cumberland was home to a hardware store operated by J. H. Yingst. This store was three stories tall and, when Nutting purchased it in the 1880s, he had planned to renovate it. But he soon decided that the building was too old and costly to spend money updating, so he had it demolished in 1892 to make room for his new vision: a five-story downtown mecca named the Nutting Building, which would begin construction that same year.

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Baltimore, a building designed by Nutting Building architect Henry Roby and his partner Edward Lupus in 1874. (Wikimedia)

Nutting commissioned architect Henry Albert Roby to design the Victorian-style structure. Roby was the surviving half of Lupus & Roby, a duo of “little-known master architects” in the words of the National Park Service. His partner, Edward Lupus, died in 1877, ending a six-year venture with Roby. Roby himself was a Baltimore resident who lived in Lebanon in the 1890s; in his past, he had fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy at Gettysburg, among other battles.

The Daily News, May 8, 1893.
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In May of 1893, the words “NUTTING BUILDING” were fashioned from copper and attached to the front of the building. A flagpole was also placed on the top of the tower during this month.

On July 24th, 1893, Lyman Nutting died suddenly; a horse-inflicted wound on his right arm precipitated a tetanus infection that became lethal over the course of several days. The community mourned the loss of the influential businessman, and the unfinished building came to be seen as an unofficial monument to Nutting, who remains buried in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery.

The Daily News, July 25, 1893.

Work continued on the structure as local businesses began eyeing its interiors as possible store locations. By August of 1894, an electric elevator was installed and in operation. It evidently ran rather smoothly, as even “the most nervous persons need have no fear,” according to a Daily News update on the 31st of that month. The “handsome car” and its operator, one Adam C. Bentz, could carry passengers around 150 feet per minute, rising to the top floor from the basement in just 19 seconds. By mid-September, the building was more or less complete.

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A “ghost sign” on the western wall continues to fade over time. These hand-painted ads were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This one appears to hawk “Bridal Tomato Soup,” a Philadelphia-based canned soup seller that began business in 1911 and appears to have operated for at least a decade. (Cheyenne Tobias)

The building was immediately popular as businesses and organizations set up shops, held events, and made full use of the spaces within. Some additions were made in later years, like a 1897 staircase installed by the elevator.

Samler makes a name for himself

The Nutting name would likely still be attached to the building were it not for Louis Samler, another powerful Lebanon businessman. Samler was a Philadelphia native who was born in 1870. As a young man he moved to Lebanon and opened the business that would become the Bon Ton Department Store in 1896.

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The Daily News.

At the time of Samler’s purchase of the Nutting Building in August 1920, he was well-known as the Bon Ton’s founder, an establishment worthy of its own article. Alongside equally keen wife and businesswoman Sophie, Samler had grown it into “Lebanon’s Greatest Store.” The Bon Ton was located just down the street from Samler’s new purchase.

Samler set to work on updating the building. In July of 1921, contractors began work on the new storefront, and the name of Nutting was replaced by Samler. Businesses continued to come and go under Samler’s time as owner.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: compare this postcard mailed in 1918 with a similar one below. Note that the building’s name is the “NUTTING BUILDING.” In just two years, Louis Samler would purchase it, and by 1921 the building would be known as the Samler Building. (Lebanon County Historical Society)
The same view looking west on Cumberland Street. The skyline is practically identical, though the building’s name has been changed. It seems the illustrator made an error, as the name appears to read “SAMDER BUILDING”. Note the “BON TON” down further on Cumberland, an American flag flying atop the roof. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

Louis Samler died in his sleep on Nov. 8, 1948, at his residence on 5th Avenue in New York City. Though he had stopped direct involvement in his Lebanon businesses years earlier, he still owned the Samler Building, along with the Bon Ton and several other properties in the city.

Business comes and goes

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The building saw periods of inactivity, typically following changes in ownership, and its value has waxed and waned. In 1950, it sold for $100,000 to Lloyd Bower and Samuel Wengert from Louis Samler’s heirs. Around this time the Bon Ton building that Samler had owned was also sold, fetching approximately $375,000. In 1966, the Samler Building sold for $65,500 to the Miller Investment Corporation. In 1975, it sold for $32,500.

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A 2000 public auction notice listed some features of the interior. On the first floor was a kitchen and 50-person dining area; the second had four rooms; the third nine, the fourth a single room and two apartments; and the fifth was occupied entirely by an apartment suite. It was bought in October of that year by Tom Morrissey, Jr. Since then, more of the upstairs space has been converted into apartments.

Some of the many businesses and organizations that have called the Samler Building home over the decades:

  • Kilmer & Co. (1894) – A restaurant.
  • Rathskeller Cafe (1895) – This establishment spurred the construction of a stairway by the elevator in 1897.
  • William Bollman Post No. 158, American Legion (1896)
  • The Scenic (1907) – A movie theater operated by a John Lowe, offering a variety of affordable films for viewing. It was open until 1914.
  • Schulte Cigar Company (1920)
  • Bachrach Bros. (1923) – A “habadashery” selling men’s clothing and accessories on “Cumbreland Street.”
  • Acme Lodge No. 427, Knights of Pythias (1923) – A local branch of the fraternal organization founded in 1864; it occupied the entire third floor.
  • Offices of the Internal Revenue Service – This is mentioned in a 1975 article, but no dates are given.
  • Crossroads Restaurant and Hotel (1980) – A major occupant of the building, this establishment was first operated by Arlene Speck, the sister of Ray Funck, and continued to be in business (with some hiccups) for around two decades.
  • Metro by T-Mobile (2019) – The most recent occupant of the ground floor.

Read More: Opinion: Why does Lebanon have so many cell phone stores? Probably because we all use them

Aside from these businesses, the building has hosted a number of drug stores, law offices, and other firms.

The Crossroads restaurant. (Richard Blandy, Lebanon Daily News, June 14, 1998)

An enduring symbol

From its very start, the Samler Building has been a landmark of Lebanon’s downtown and in recent decades has been cemented as a symbol of the city itself. The Community of Lebanon Association once raised money with prints of its architecture by Natalie McDonald, and a depiction of its spire by Lebanon High student Nick Batdorf was even selected as a new city symbol in 1999. Today’s current city logo also hints at its iconic spire.

The 1999 symbol of the City of Lebanon, left, designed by Nick Batdorf. The City of Lebanon’s current logo on the right hints at the Samler Building’s tower on the end of the skyline. (City of Lebanon, PA)

Through ups and downs, name changes and ownership exchanges, the Samler Building has remained a steady presence in our city. As long as the people of Lebanon take pride in their business ventures and their history, the Samler Building will continue to turn heads in the downtown.

Special thanks to Chris Sholly for providing LebTown with personal research.

Looking south on 8th Street. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

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