Lewisburg's Iron LadyJun 01, 2021 11:31AM ● By Karey Solomon
A historic downtown building, designed and built for the three Chamberlin brothers in 1868, has served many generations of Lewisburg residents. For many of those decades, its lower floors hosted a succession of stores selling groceries, shoes, haberdashery, appliances, and other everyday needs. Its upper floors were home to fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows, and later, small, dingy offices with cubicles and dropped ceilings. A landmark loved but taken for granted, the Chamberlin building at 434 Market Street has, in recent years, taken on a new life and a new name. With its unusual Italianate iron façade restored and the insides intensively renovated, the Iron Front has become a place of milestones and new beginnings.
Mike Matukaitis, the building’s owner, spent five years on its renovations. When he first saw it, he says, it was in really poor condition. “It was structurally good but neglected. There were cobwebs everywhere...” Because the 21,000-square-foot building is on the National Registry of Historic Places, the renovations had to be done with particular care.
At first on his own, later working with contractors, Mike ripped out the dropped ceilings to reveal old tin ceilings and beautiful vintage beams. He sandblasted brick walls, refinished floors, hired electricians and plumbers to modernize the building’s innards. An architecture buff, he learned about the period, reviewed other renovations, gathered ideas.
If this sounds like someone with unusual amounts of energy and a propensity for thinking outside the box, it is. “It’s fun to see the passion he has for doing great things,” says Dennis Hummer, who works for the Small Business Development Project at Bucknell University in Lewisburg. The two men came to know each other when Mike, a former classroom teacher, developed a software company providing online training for educators and service providers. He purchased and occupied part of the Chamberlin building for his business, Brighton Training Group, and in October 2019 purchased the rest of the building. Part of the Iron Front was and still is used for co-working space—Mike provides coffee, printing, and mail services, free WiFi, and a bike-share program for the twenty current participants. As spaces were renovated, he also saw the potential for offering them as a venue for events, with complementary services already in place to make party, corporate gatherings, and weddings streamlined.
“I fell in love with the idea of open space, tall ceilings, hardwood floors, cool architectural elements...” Mike says. He sourced vintage replacement elements, where those were missing, at architectural salvage stores from Scranton to southern Virginia. The result is a minimalist décor based on the simplicity of long-lasting materials. Some describe it as “industrial chic.”
He currently has enough tables, chairs and space to host 135 sit-down guests (or 200 for gatherings without a sit-down meal) in one part of the building, while in another part a smaller party might be taking place. There are eight suites on the upper two floors. An elevator makes them all accessible spaces. A fully equipped kitchen, with tableware, flatware, everything needed for beverage service, even silk flower table decorations and linens are also available as needed. “We try to make it super easy to book with us so people don’t have to deal with thirty different vendors,” he says.
Those who’ve attended events here describe it as a magical, airy space whose minimalist vibe allows guests to focus their attention on each other—or the happy couple getting married. Tall windows let in a lot of natural light, which in a daytime event, is especially appreciated by photographers.
Kelly Magargle and her then-fiance, Casey, serving in the military, planned to marry in 2020, but when they learned his deployment had been moved forward, they decided to accelerate their wedding plans by a year. Choosing to marry at Iron Front took away a lot of the stress.
“It was a last-minute thing, but they were available the weekend we were looking for and the price was pretty good for us,” Kelly says. “They have a bridal suite on the second floor, we could have the ceremony and reception in the same building, they said we could have any caterer we wanted, and they have the kitchen there. It was just the right atmosphere. They have those big beautiful windows that let in so much light! We got married at three in the afternoon and got this beautiful light coming in.”
Kelly also has high praise for Mike. “Mike was so wonderful, he communicated so well. They gave me a wedding coordinator for the day. Everyone was so helpful and amazing. I could see they really care about being there. I got everything I wanted and I felt very spoiled.”
Although Iron Front hosts more corporate events than weddings, for Mike and his staff the weddings are “just magical.”
“It’s a historic space that’s been through a lot, and the lighting and tall windows make it really special, just incredible,” Mike says. He’s noted his staff, watching the ceremony from the back of the room, are often as moved by the magic of the moment as their guests. “It’s neat to see how excited they are about it.”
And while he initially thought those wanting the space would be mostly locals, he’s been pleasantly surprised by how many people contact him from out of town. “Because we’re centrally located, we get a lot of weddings where part of the family might live in Pittsburgh, part in Philly,” he notes. The website explains everything Iron Front offers, with a fill-in form where brides and event/party planners can describe their projected needs, submitting the form for an estimate. Mike or one of his staff quickly responds. Communication is important.
“We often get back to them within an hour from when they submit their estimate request,” he says.
When was he finally able to take a deep breath and say it had all come out the way he’d wanted it to? “Probably today, actually,” he laughs, explaining the carpenters had just finished the last part of the third floor’s renovations, all done except for the barn-style doors yet to be hung at the last room’s entry.
The changes to the building, though almost complete, are not yet fully realized. This fall the ground floor will enter a new incarnation as a 5,000-square-foot full-service restaurant and bar. “His ideas are endless—and it’s so good for the community,” Dennis says.
See more of the space at ironfrontevents.com; reach them by phone at 800-870-8830.