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April 14, 2021
Giving Back Jennie Gilrain and John Noble: Saving Swifts
Conservation – whether you’re preserving historic character, community soul, or the natural world—can be at the heart of real estate development. It’s the key to local developer John Noble’s philosophy, and his newest project on Bethlehem’s South Side—the redevelopment of the Masonic Temple and historic Wilbur Mansion property on Wyandotte Street—is a beautiful example.
The Lehigh graduate purchased the property in 2015, and in 2020, despite the challenges of COVID-19, broke ground on a complex that will include a restaurant and apartments with breathtaking views. Shortly thereafter, “I got an email,” he says. “It said: did you know you have birds in your chimney?”
The birds in question are Chimney Swifts—small, joyous aerialists, more tornado than flock (you’ve seen them!). They nest vertically in chimneys, and, as chimneys have dwindled from residential structures, so too have their homes. That email John received was from local fourth grade teacher and passionate nature advocate Jennie Gilrain. She and her husband had noticed the swifts funneling into the temple’s historic stone chimney, and she was moved to act. “I had visions of chaining myself to the chimney,” she laughs.
But she hadn’t yet met John—who was grateful to hear about the birds, so he could act as well. “I’m not a big fan,” he says, “of hurting things when you build things.” Learning about Rodale’s sustainability practices as an undergraduate at Lehigh was an early influence. Not only is conservation an ethical responsibility, it’s an opportunity to be creative. “When someone throws a curveball that you’re not expecting,” he says, “you think, how can we make this cool?”
It’s that kind of creative energy that draws people together and creates change. Not only has the stone chimney been preserved—as of January, the swifts’ home is free-standing—it will become a feature of the property. On February 2, Bethlehem City Council passed a resolution presented by Council members Olga Negrón and J. William Reynolds to name the chimney swift the official city bird. A Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium grant will support three public events about the swifts, urban ecosystems and sustainable development, to be held at the Bethlehem Area Public Library; John will be a speaker at the April 21 panel
(register at bapl.org/saveourswifts).
“And maybe it goes beyond saving a chimney; maybe it becomes a focal point to raise awareness” about ethical development, says John. “Maybe this influences a developer to look at a bog turtle and say, they’re pretty cool. Maybe we should do something to save them.”
You can support this project at charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/save-our-swifts.