Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bedford Springs, PA

Bedford Springs Resort and Spa is an historic destination that has played host to two centuries of presidents, politicians, financiers, industrialists and the merely rich, most of whom were caught up in the social springs scene that reached its heyday in the nineteenth century.

Bedford Springs Hotel, 1840 (Augustus Koelner)

Bedford, nestled in the scenic Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, was known by native Americans, who were attracted by the area's natural springs. Later, in the late 18th century, settlers who drank the waters noticed that symptoms of rheumatism and ulcers troubled them less. Some who soaked their limbs in the water were cured within a few weeks. The healing qualities of the springs led local doctor John Anderson to purchase the land surrounding them in 1796. For 10 years he treated patients in makeshift tents erected on his property; those who sought his treatments included Aaron Burr and his ailing grandson.

As his cures grew in popularity, he decided to build a spa hotel. The Stone Inn, which opened in 1806, was built from locally quarried stone carried down the mountain by oxen; today this original stone building is still in use, housing the Frontier Tavern, a popular bar, restaurant and lounge venue at today's Bedford Springs Resort. Anderson’s spa hotel was an immediate success and soon attracted a wealthy clientele. Due to the lack of medications in those days, people flocked to Bedford Springs from great distances in search of a cure for their illnesses.

Bedford Springs 1817 (click to enlarge)

Early guests traveled by train to Cumberland, MD, and then made a 21-mile coach trip through the Cumberland Valley up to the hotel. The facility expanded regularly as its popularity increased. Bedford Springs was soon home to one of the first golf courses in America, originally designed by Spencer Oldham in 1895, just ten years after the first game of golf had been played in the U.S. The course would later be redesigned by A.W. Tillinghast (1912), and then by the renowned Donald Ross (1923). In 1905, the resort constructed one of the nation’s first indoor pools, complete with a musician's gallery, from which string quartets serenaded the bathers below; water was supplied by the spring waters. As well, the hotel was the first place in the country to boast an Olympic sized pool.

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa, 2007

President James Buchanan vacationed at the Bedford Springs Hotel over a period of 25 years. The only president from the Keystone State and the only bachelor president, Buchanan made the hotel his "Summer White House" from 1857-1861. He had his mail forwarded from Washington and conducted state business while in residence. In fact, it was from the steps of the hotel, and not Washington, that he announced he would not seek re-election.

Other notable visitors to Bedford Springs included William Henry Harrison, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Thaddeus Stevens, not to mention Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Henry Ford, John Wanamaker and Andrew Jackson. President Buchanan was in residence when he received the first ever trans-Atlantic cable message sent from England, by Queen Victoria on August 17, 1858. A few years earlier, in 1855, the hotel hosted the only Supreme Court hearing ever held outside the capital, for the purpose of discussing the Dred Scott case.

In the 1890s the resort was hailed the "Carlsbad of America," because it was determined that its magnesia springs were identical in analysis to those of Europe's famous Carlsbad Spa (Karlovy Vary) in the Czech Republic. A major enlargement and refurbishment took place in 1905 to accommodate increasing business.

The resort maintained a high social profile, as well; the hotel hosted hundreds of balls and weddings. Original glass in the windows of the library bear the inscriptions of brides who were married at the resort, most dating back to the mid-19th century. A real diamond would scratch glass!

Late 19th-century additions, recently restored

In the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy took over the hotel, which served as a communication training center during World War II. The soldiers, used to primitive mess halls, were taken aback at having waiters place linen napkins in their laps. The hotel and convention hall were remodeled to accommodate more than 6,000 Navy personnel. In 1943, the posh retreat also housed 200 Japanese diplomats and their families detained from Germany during wartime. "Guests" of the United States, they were later exchanged for captured American POWs in Asia.

With the completion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike after the war, the resort became an even more popular destination, as an exit was just three miles from the hotel. The resort remained open year round for the first time in 1950. The 60s and 70s were prosperous years, and Bedford Springs Resort was deemed one of the best remaining examples of “springs resort architecture.” But trouble loomed; it did not help that the last major upgrade had taken place in 1905.

Photo from the early 1930s

In 1984, a year after devastating flooding had decimated the hotel and years of negligence and declining occupancy had taken their toll, the resort was designated a National Historic Landmark and given endangered site status. It was too little, too late and, unfortunately, the resort entered into bankruptcy two years later and closed shortly thereafter. That's when things got really bad. An architect visiting the property in 2004 reported, "It was an uncontrolled mess. Parts of the building had no roof. The lobby had no floor, because a flood had washed it away. You couldn't walk into the lobby because it was a mud pit. There was water dripping down and plaster falling from the ceilings. Paint everywhere was peeling, and the smell of mold was overwhelming. It was like a movie set for a horror movie."

Although it subsequently defied eight attempts to get it up and running again, there proved to be still some life left in this historic, storied property. A plan was in place to demolish most of the original structures, replacing them with modern facilities, but the historical interests would not grant permission. Against enormous odds, a private group raised capital to perform an ambitious and extremely costly renovation, which began in 2005, culminating in the resort’s reopening in the summer of 2007 to great critical acclaim. To illustrate the pains taken to bring the property back to life, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation directed its workers to dynamite a path through a mountain to reroute Rte. 220 so it would pass behind the resort, instead of in front of it. That cost $11 million, just part of the total $40 million the state of Pennsylvania spent to revive this leisure attraction. An average of 750 trucks used to pass in front of the hotel daily. By rerouting the road, they were able to create a more relaxing environment.

Today Bedford Springs Resort and Spa is managed by Omni hotels. A member of Historic Hotels of America, this resort property boasts a restored golf course, new spa facilities and many of the original springs, all centered around a sprawling hotel. The recent refurbishment has returned the resort’s focus to its historic past as a celebrated spa resort, with 30,000 sq. ft. of a new wing dedicated to popular state-of-the-art spa facilities. The public areas and historic guest room wings have been returned to their 1905 ambiance, providing an uninterrupted, continuous façade more than 600 feet long. Wrap-around verandas are enhanced by Victorian fretwork trim and old fashioned rocking chairs.

Bedford Springs once again ranks with the remaining historic social spring resorts in the U.S.: The Homestead in Hot Springs, VA and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV (thankfully without the lurid, garish interiors of the latter). The original hotel buildings of the Homestead and Greenbrier resorts do not survive, but Bedford Springs, with the exception of the new spa wing, is a series of seven connected original buildings, the oldest of which dates back to 1806. Bedford Springs has a leg up on these other grande dames, because its refurbishment has occurred when modern guests’ expectations include flat-screen televisions and iPod docking stations, today housed discretely behind doors of secretary desks, so as not to spoil the aura of time and place. The most recent restoration has reduced the number of rooms to 220, in order to offer more spacious bathrooms and guest quarters; however, the exteriors of the historic buildings remain unchanged.

During the course of recent construction, a new spring was discovered, lying directly beneath the modern spa facilities. After a 20-year slumber and a $120 million restoration, this landmark property combines the legacy of its storied past with all modern amenities.

Below: The Old Course, recently restored to its 1923 Donald Ross configuration.

The hallways and public spaces are graced with hundreds of historic artifacts and photographs, and the main bar and lounge, located in the refurbished Stone House, contains the original cooking fireplace where food was prepared for the very first guests in 1806. In addition to tennis and golf, there are diversions from an earlier age, including a badminton court, horseshoes and lawn bowling. There is a year-round fire pit for roasting marshmallows, extensive trails for hiking and biking, fly fishing, volleyball and bird watching. Carriage rides are offered seasonally.

Guests at Bedford Springs Resort & Spa may choose from first-class rooms and suites, six dining options, a 30,000 sq-ft spa that utilizes water from the healing springs, a 20,000 sq-ft conference center, restored historic golf course, gold medal trout stream, tennis, river rafting, carriage rides, mountain nature trails and Cannondale bikes to traverse them, a new outdoor wedding grotto, plus indoor and outdoor swimming pools. There are diversions from an earlier age, include a badminton court, horseshoes and lawn bowling. There is a year-round fire pit for roasting marshmallows, extensive trails for hiking, fly fishing, volleyball and bird watching.

Those who feel compelled to leave the resort property may visit over a dozen covered bridges within a 20-mile radius, and downtown Bedford, a treasure trove of antique stores, is just a few miles away. As well, Old Bedford Village is a reconstructed cluster of buildings and historic sites that harkens back to pioneer days and colonial times; Old Bedford was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa
2138 Business Rte. 220
Bedford, Pennsylvania