By James Pletcher Jr.,
Built in 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt was president and the U.S. population stood at about 87 million souls, the Summit Inn is celebrating its first century of continuous year of operation this year.
Bought in 1963 by Eunice and the late Don Shoemaker, the historic hotel has survived economic depression, two world wars and a myriad of changes in society ranging from the advent of the automobile to manned flight to television and computers.
At one time, the Summit Inn “used to be the only attraction to bring tourists in,” Karen Harris, owner and the Shoemaker’s daughter, said. When it was built, Harris said, “there was no bike trail, no Fort Necessity, no Laurel Caverns, no Fallingwater.”
Now it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the official documentation for the National Register, the Summit Inn is a distinctive important example of 20th century Mission and Craftsman-influenced architecture built as a stop for travelers along historic U.S. Route 40. Clinton Piper, who researched and submitted the material for review by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, said. “It (the Summit Inn) stands as perhaps the only sizable rural hotel that exhibits elements of a particular style. The building’s dramatic rambling roofline with twin towers, its central block with a parapet gable, expansive porches and prominent setting make it one of the region’s most notable hotels of its era.”
The Summit Hotel Co., comprised of a group of local businessmen, opened the hotel in 1907. The owners acclaimed it as “unequaled anywhere on the National Pike between Washington City and St. Louis.”
In addition to holding a three-star AAA rating, the hotel offers a nine-hole regulation par 35 golf course, all situated on 1,000 acres of mountain forest. “On a clear day, you can see the U.S. Steel Building in Pittsburgh from the No. 4 hole,” Harris said.
It boasts “the best crab cakes in the U.S.A.,” Harris said, as well as authentic period Gustav Stickley furnishings in the lobby.
On a cool day a fire crackles in the lobby’s stone fireplace. Small desks of oak and tables with checker games ready to be played add to the hotel’s nostalgic charm.
“We have an air of authenticity,” Randall Harris, Karen’s husband said. “People are sitting on the same chairs as Ford, (early auto racer) Barney Oldfield, Edison. That’s what you get when you visit an historic resort.”
“People liked the mountaintop property because of the cooler air. There was no air-conditioning for many years after this was built,” Randall Harris said.
According to its history, no architect has been found who designed the hotel. “Its detailed execution indicates that there was an architect or skilled builder responsible for the design. The building’s dramatic rambling roofline with twin towers, its central block with a parapet gable, expansive porches and prominent setting make it one of the region’s most notable hotels. Only a few hotels of this design remain in existence today.”
Nine Uniontown businessmen formed the Summit Hotel Co. and built the original structure. They were J.C. Work, Isaac W. Semans, Frank H. Rosboro, B.B. Howell, Dr. Charles H. Smith, John F. Hankins, John M. Core and M.H. Bowman, all from Uniontown, and W.W. Ramsey of Pittsburgh.
The group sold the hotel in 1930 to Leo Heyn.
Eunice Shoemaker said Heyn “started a lot of advertising,” even placing roadside signs similar to those for popular products of the day. “The Greyhound Bus Line even had a stop here,” she said. Heyn advertised homegrown vegetables and chickens raised on the property, elite table water and a “Summit Spa,” saying that Gen. George Washington once used water from the spring flowing into it.
Boasting “absolute quietness and cleanliness assured,” Heyn attracted other notables of his time, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and one of the Mayo brothers, who founded the clinic bearing their name, Shoemaker said.
While the original developers built the golf course in the early 1920s, Heyn brought in Sam Parke as the golf pro in 1931. “He won the U.S. Open in 1935,” Shoemaker said.
The father of legendary golf course designer Pete Dye visited the course in 1923, returning to Ohio to begin his work designing golf courses, according to Summit Inn history.
Heyn also created a ski slope in the 1930s that the Shoemakers resurrected for a time during the 1960s.
The Great Depression and World War II made it difficult to continue the business due to a drop in automobile traffic. Heyn sold the property in 1946 to Maxwell Abbell.
The Shoemakers first exposure to the property came in 1958 when Don was hired to manage the hotel.
“He saw only vestiges of the historic porch hotel’s former glory, and he was far from impressed,” the hostel’s history relates.
“It was so rundown, there wasn’t a decent room in the whole place,” Shoemaker said.
Don and Eunice bought the property in 1963, investing their time and capital in restoring it to its former glory.
“It’s been a good experience,” Eunice Shoemaker said. “Many of our guests would return year after year. We enjoyed closing in November for the season. It gave us time to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas as a family. So, we had the best of both words,” she added.
Shoemaker said she and her husband visited local sales and auctions during the early years, buying furniture and other accessories they needed.
“My parents struggled to keep the hotel up and didn’t throw anything away but would reuse it, repaint it, change it if needed,” Karen Harris said.
“We bought the chandelier in the dining room and the landing from the White Swan Hotel,” Eunice Shoemaker said.
During their tenure, the Shoemakers added 21 rooms to the hotel, which also features two swimming pools, shuffleboard and tennis. The banquet area addition, done in a Colonial motif with ivory window frames and red and blue checked carpeting, was the last design Don Shoemaker did before he died in 1997. “He had the contractor come to the hospital so he could show him what he wanted. He never got to see it completed,” his wife said.
Don Shoemaker designed the growth, even helping in construction, spending one winter, for example, excavating dirt from under the hotel to create a downstairs lounge.
In addition, there are smaller conference rooms (one named for Harvey Firestone) and the Summit Dining Room, all available to the public as well as guests.
“We are open 24 hours a day. We have entertainment on weekends and our golf course is open to the public. We have summer memberships for our pools, too,” Karen Harris said.
Harris, who was 5 when her parents took over the hotel, began her official career there as a lifeguard. “I did a little bit of everything here,” in her career, she said.
Shoemaker said she has enjoyed all aspects of her life at the hotel and resort.
“I can’t think of anything about this that would be the downside of the business,” she said.
The Shoemakers’ efforts were honored in 1996 with the Pennsylvania Travel Council’s Distinguished Hotelier of the Year Award, presented by then-Pennsylvania Secretary of Commerce Thomas Hagen.
Hagen described the Summit as one of the few remaining “porch hotels” in America, meaning a hotel with what can be described as a grand outside deck overlooking the surrounding flora, the type of porch that conjures images of white wicker rockers, cool summer breezes and gentlemen and ladies of a different era altogether.
Business continues to be good at the 94-room hotel, Karen Harris said.
She and her husband Randall and her daughter Amanda Leskinen, operate the hotel today. Leskinen, a recent Washington and Jefferson College graduate with degrees in political science and business administration, is the events coordinator. Randall Harris, who was once associated with Herman Dupre, who founded Seven Springs Resort, handles infrastructure and is an innkeeper. Others on the staff include Sam Shoemaker, a cousin; Anna Marie Collins and Ray Parris, the executive chef.
Karen Harris said the hotel features all new menus this year including steaks exclusively from Black Angus steers.
Owners are also planning to expand the golf course from nine to 18 holes and will be offering special anniversary packages over July 4 and Labor Day.
As for the future, Randall Harris noted that with “1,000 acres of land, we have unlimited opportunities for development.”
For more information, call the Summit Inn at 724-438-8594 (toll free at 1-800-433-8594) or visit its Web site at www.summitinnresort.com.
Updated 06/04/2007 09:04:08 AM EDT
©The Herald Standard 2007