Photo of H. Leh & Company building in the 1950s
|Products||Clothing, footwear, cosmetics, jewelry, beauty products, electronics, and appliances|
H. Leh & Co. (or simply Leh's) was a department store located at 626 W. Hamilton St. It was located along the Hamilton Mall in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Like many other downtown department stores of the time, it closed due to suburban shopping malls' increasing popularity.
On April 25, 1850, Henry Leh, hung a sign on a storefront in the 600 block of Hamilton Street in Allentown. He would sell ready-to-wear clothes to the 4,000 citizens of Allentown, something that was unheard of in that part of the state. And if they needed boots and shoes, he'd not only sell them but make them.
The early years were not easy for the retail store he first named Neleigh & Leh. Leh had to get all of his merchandise by canal boat and stagecoach. Then there was the problem of business partners. He had several between 1850 and 1860. And in the latter part of the 1850s, the nation was trying to recover from a depression.
It was the Civil War that was to change Leh's fortunes. The Union Army needed boots. Since Simon Cameron, the secretary of war, was from Pennsylvania, many government contracts flowed to the Keystone state. With a contract to make boots, Leh was able to put the store on a sound fiscal footing.
As Allentown prospered in the post-Civil War era, so did Henry Leh. The store was already well established in 1874 when a young man named Horatio Koch got a job there as a shipping clerk. Koch quickly advanced in the company, and 10 years later Leh made him his partner. Shortly thereafter, Koch married Leh's daughter, Sallie to join the two families.
By Henry Leh's death in 1910, his sons and the Kochs were already making plans to modernize the store. In 1911, the newly remodeled H. Leh & Co. store reopened. It was a bright modern building worthy of the new century in which it was born. There would be many expansions of the downtown building over the next 50 years. When H. Leh & Co. celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1950, it was considered as solid a local institution as its neighbor, Zion's Reformed UCC Church, known as the hiding place of the Liberty Bell during the American Revolution.
Christmas season found the store packed. The arrival of Santa Claus was a major event. The jolly old elf showed up on every kind of land and aircraft imaginable. Although not quite as flamboyant as Max Hess's showplace at 9th and Hamilton, Leh's still held its own. In the late 1950s an appearance by pop singing idol Frankie Avalon packed the store with teen-agers.
But by the late 1960s, the arrival of the suburban mall was already starting to hurt downtown stores. To keep its customers, Leh's countered by building a large parking deck in 1970. Leh's peak came in the late 1980s, when it brought in $25 million in its retail sales over the course of the year. At that point, it ranked among the nation's top 100 department stores.
Leh's also had locations, all of which closed, at:
- Bethlehem Square, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1988-1996)
- Quakertown, Pennsylvania (1972-1996)
- Whitehall Mall, Whitehall, Pennsylvania, taking over the bankrupt Zollinger and Harned store (1978-1996). Now Gold's Gym and buybuy BABY.
Also, after Leh's closing, remaining merchandise was sold at:
- Leh's Close-Outs & More, S 4th Street, Allentown
After its peak, several decades of decline in Downtown Allentown led to the sale of Hess's to The Bon-Ton in 1994. In 1994, Leh's flagship store closed for good. Two years later, Bon-Ton closed the flagship at 9th and Hamilton Streets, putting an end to the department stores that occupied downtown. The five-story Leh's building was renovated and is now used by Lehigh County. On June 29, 1996, all of the remaining locations closed.
Leh's Department Store, Timeline 1850-1996
- April 25, 1850—Henry Leh opens store on Hamilton Street, Allentown. That same year, he starts producing shoes and boots.
- 1861-1865—Leh gets contract to make boots for the Union Army during Civil War.
- 1884—Horatio B. Koch becomes a partner and marries Leh's daughter Sallie.
- 1898—Leh supplies boots to U.S. Army during Spanish-American War.
- 1910—Henry Leh dies.
- 1911—Newly expanded H. Leh & Company store reopens. Shoe and boot making factory closes.
- 1920—Horatio B. Koch dies.
- 1928—Store undergoes major expansion.
- 1936—Store expands again despite Great Depression.
- 1950—Store marks 100th anniversary. John Leh II and H. Thomas Koch Jr., great grandsons of Henry Leh, join company.
- 1970—Leh's opens parking deck.
- 1972—Leh's opens first satellite store in Quakertown.
- 1978—Leh's opens Whitehall Mall store, taking over the bankrupt Zollinger-Harned store established in 1966.
- 1988—Third satellite store opens in Bethlehem.
- 1992—Co-owners John Leh II and William Leh buy out Koch family interest.
- 1994—Leh's closes Allentown store.
- March 11, 1996—William Leh announces closing of remaining department stores.
- Allentown, 1762–1987, a 225 Year history, Volume II, 1921–1987, Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987.