Sunday, June 17, 2007
By Marylynne Pitz,
BEDFORD — Here at the lush Bedford Springs Resort, the Allegheny Mountains echo with the sounds of hammers, drills and buzzing saws. This cacophony of power tools is punctuated by regular grunts from an army of carpenters, electricians, landscapers and men laying elegant carpet in the Eisenhower Room or shimmering blue tile in the Eternal Springs Spa.
As the opening day of July 1 looms, this mountain retreat nestled in a narrow valley on 185 acres looks like a convention of contractors with workers laboring feverishly to finish a $120 million restoration and public spaces, such as an outdoor swimming pool. On a hill that affords a sweeping view of the resort, carpenters are building an open-air wedding chapel that resembles a Greek temple.
Inside the five guest houses that make up this national historic landmark, long scraps of colorful carpet snake across floors. Blueprints are spread out on stainless-steel kitchen counters. Many ornate lighting fixtures are still swathed in plastic.
“It’s a race to the end. It always is. This has been a marathon but we can see the end in sight,” said Keith P. Evans of Dallas, one of 10 investors from Bedford Resort Partners Ltd.
The 203-year-old Bedford Springs, which closed in 1990, is being restored to its 1905 splendor, including a robin’s egg shade called Bedford Blue that symbolizes the resort’s reputation as a font of seven mineral springs. In its recreational glory days, the hotel hosted Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Samuel Wanamaker, Nathaniel Hawthorne and seven U.S. presidents, including its most ardent fan, James Buchanan, who used it as his summer White House from 1857 to 1861.
Today, the frenzy of preparations so resembles an extreme makeover that a casual observer might wonder if a sitting president or a reigning queen was due to arrive. Or, at the very least, Helen Mirren in an ermine robe.
“Most of what’s being done right now is finalizing furniture, fixtures and equipment,” said Mr. Evans in a telephone interview from Texas. He plans to spend eight days on the site later this month.
Guests are already booked for July; weddings are scheduled in July and August. Utility lawyers and pharmaceutical industry representatives are booked for the fall.
Long before the resort started accepting reservations, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation directed its workers to blow up a mountain and reroute Route 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 would pass in front of the hotel daily. By rerouting the road, we were able to create a more relaxing environment,” said Todd Gillespie, the resort’s marketing director.
Not to mention the elimination of all those noxious exhaust fumes, which might interfere with taking the waters, inhaling spruce-scented breezes or relaxing on the front porch — attractions that drew Aaron Burr and his ailing grandson here in 1806.
Even after two centuries, this place is all about its seven gushing natural springs. American Indians drank from the springs long before they were discovered in the late 1700s by Nicholas Shouffler, a gold prospector.
The magnesia spring is reportedly good for your stomach; the iron spring, a tonic for your blood. Locals regularly fill jugs with crystal spring water. The limestone spring lies just beyond a gold medal trout stream called Shober’s Run while the sulphur and sweet springs are closer to the hotel on Sweet Root Road.
A black spring that produces 400,000 to 500,000 gallons daily feeds Red Oak Lake, a scenic spot built in 1941 by the Navy, which converted the hotel into a radio communication training facility. After the military left, the lake became a popular spot for locals. Now, it’s being cleared of vegetation, fallen logs and a collapsed dock. By next year, a large gazebo and new dock will rise along its shore.
After restoration began in the fall of 2005, crews found an eighth spring that produces 20 gallons per minute. That water is diverted into two large holding tanks installed near the indoor pool and feeds a 30,000-square-foot spa with 14 treatment rooms.
Guests can soak in the Bedford Bath, where water is heated to 105 degrees, shock themselves with a plunge in 55-degree water, then return to warmer water. This primes you for a steam shower, massage and other treatments.
Once you dry off and dress, there’s a choice of five restaurants, including the fancy 1796 or the cozy Frontier Tavern. In addition to a couple that offer informal fare, the sentimental favorite is the formal Crystal Dining room, which has new crystal chandeliers imported from England.
Hanging chandeliers is no sweat compared to restoration engineering feats. Any time you update a 203-year-old hotel, there are structural surprises, and the Colonnade Ballroom in the former Colonial Building snarled the schedule. Cables suspended in the hotel’s attic held up the corners of the large wooden floor, but wooden trusses that supported the second-floor ballroom had weakened and new wooden trusses had to be installed.
“We pulled the roof off and reworked the structural supports … and basically abandoned the cable system,” Mr. Evans said, adding that the National Parks Service and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission had to approve the work, which also took time.
Once the roof was removed, heavy-duty air conditioning and sound technology were installed in the building’s ceiling. Now, the ballroom, which seats 350, is covered in a carpet of blue, green, gold, brown and pink.
David Rau, a design architect from 3 North in Virginia, said the transformation is remarkable.
When he saw the hotel near summer’s end in 2004, it was “an uncontrolled mess,” he said. “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 peeled. It was like a movie set for a horror movie.”
Bonnie Wilkinson Mark, a historical architect from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, remembered the air in the Colonial Building, one of five guest houses that stand side by side.
“It had a smell to it that was not pleasant — the smell of mold. This building backs up to the hill behind it. There is so much water coming out of the hill, it was literally coming right into the building,” she said.
Besides controlling and channeling the water, the major challenge was maintaining the buildings’ historic authenticity while restoring them and installing 21st-century modernity — air conditioning, telephones, flat-screen TVs, Internet connections and elevators. Between 1826 and 1842, the hotel was continually upgraded, but the “last major historic upgrade occurred in 1905,” Ms. Mark said.
Known to locals as “the springs,” the hotel has employed generations of Bedford County residents, and a job fair at the end of last month attracted 1,100 potential applicants for 100 positions.
You can walk or ride on the golf course, designed in 1895 by Spencer Oldham and the home of blue herons. In 1911, another prominent course designer, A.W. Tillinghast, for unknown reasons, altered the course to nine holes. He created a storied hole called Tiny Tim, now hole No. 14.
“He backed up Shober’s Run to create a pond in front of the hole, and he placed six sand bunkers in the back of the green. In between each of the bunkers, he placed these series of mounds, which he called alps. He loved that hole so much that he devoted an entire chapter to it in a book he wrote about course design. He tried to replicate that hole on the additional 150 golf courses he went on to design,” Mr. Gillespie said.
In 1923, Donald Ross expanded the course to 18 holes; all the holes north of Shober’s Run were designed by him. Mr. Ross created a tough challenge, too — a par three Volcano Hole where players must shoot 233 yards uphill.
Whatever your golf score, you can recuperate from a hard day of swinging clubs in one of the 216 rooms. On the beds, linens are made of first run Egyptian cotton. Liquid crystal display TVs are tucked in armoires. There are full-length mirrors, sterling silver lamps, bathrooms with Italian marble laid in a herringbone pattern and a vanity.
A 19th-century visitor called the resort “a palace in the wilderness.”
Now, after a glorious restoration that description still fits.
Bedford Springs: Through the years
The rise, decline and rebirth of Bedford Springs Resort parallels the political, social and architectural changes in America for more than two centuries. Here are some significant dates in the retreat’s rich history.
Dr. John Anderson buys 2,200 acres in Bedford County. A medical doctor and entrepreneur, he transformed the property into a mineral springs resort by creating a restaurant, hotel, laundry, servants’ quarters and entertainment.
Builder Solomon Filler completes the Stone Inn using teams of oxen to carry the stone and broad axes to cut the wood. Four other guest houses, the Colonial, Evitt, Swiss Cottage and Anderson House, were built between 1806 and 1905.
The hotel serves as the summer White House for U.S. President James Buchanan, the only native of Pennsylvania to occupy the Oval Office. In 1858, he receives the first trans-Atlantic cable ever sent in the hotel’s lobby; it was from England’s Queen Victoria.
Dr. William E. Fitch, an authority on mineral waters and the hotel’s medical director, prescribes the doctor-supervised, three-week Bedford Cure for guests.
The U.S. Navy takes over the hotel and uses it to train more than 6,000 sailors as radio operators.
Between August and November, the U.S. government interns 180 high-level Japanese diplomats and embassy staff captured in Germany near the end of World War II.
Flooding inflicts $1 million worth of damage, and water courses through the hotel’s lobby.
The U.S. Department of the Interior designates the resort as a National Historic Landmark, hailing it as one of the best examples of “springs resort architecture.”
The hotel goes into bankruptcy.
The hotel closes.
Bedford Resort Partners Ltd., made up of 10 investors, buys the 2,200-acre property for $8 million.
The hotel and golf course are restored; a new spa wing is built. The resort will reopen July 1.
If you go: Bedford Springs Resort
Overview: Bedford Springs Resort, at 2138 Business Route 220 in Bedford, offers 216 guest rooms and suites. There are 90 king-sized rooms, 44 queen guest rooms and 81 double rooms.
Rooms: Many rooms feature open-air porches with rocking chairs and a commanding view of the grounds. All rooms offer flat-screen televisions, wireless high-speed Internet access, dual line phones and voice-mail message systems.
Amenities: Amenities include indoor and outdoor pools, an 18-hole golf course, a fitness center, spa with 14 treatment rooms, and 10 meeting rooms for conferences. Among the activities are rafting on the Juniata River, a gold medal trout stream for fly fishing, 25 miles of hiking and biking trails and horseback riding. Red Oak Lake will offer paddle boats, fishing and a beach with picnic areas.
Rates: From Sundays to Thursdays, mountain view rooms start at $249 per night. On Fridays and Saturdays, all room rates start at $299. The resort also offers special accommodation packages.
Information: Visit the hotel’s Web site, www.bedfordspringsresort.com, or call 1-814-623-8100.
– Marylynne Pitz
(Marylynne Pitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648. )