Destination Pennsylvania

The past is present at an old beauty of a spa

November 18, 2007|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call

BEDFORD, PA. / / It is late, and I am very tired the night I check into Bedford Springs Resort in south-central Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley. But as the evening unfolds, I will get very little sleep.

It isn't that my $249 bedroom for the night is not comfortable. The mile-high bed's thick mattress and cloud-soft bedding are cushy -- once I manage to scale them without the help of a step stool.

It isn't that the hallways are not quiet. As I walk them in the wee hours of the night, I am by myself, but not really alone.

Although I'd read the resort's history, which begins in 1796, I was unprepared for the number of people I'd meet. These people are everywhere -- in formal portraits in the dining room and in casual, though posed, pictures that line the hallways. Studying the people in the pictures and the ways they enjoyed the property cost me several hours of sleep.

The work of a prolific professional photographer named Ruth Bailey, these photos from the late 1890s and early 1900s capture forever the guests who flocked to this resort. The pictures make the resort, which reopened this past summer after a $120 million makeover and 21 dark years, more than just another hotel with bedrooms, restaurants, a spa and a golf course.

Beginning with the discovery of seven curative springs (already in use by Native Americans) in the late 1700s, the resort thrived for most of its first 200 years.

Surviving assorted wars and the Depression, the resort's rockiest times were the 1980s and 1990s, when neglect, torrential rains and flooding triggered a decline that led to its abandonment in 1985.

When a group of investors took on the project in 2004, the old beauty was a wreck -- needing far more than face powder and rouge to pass her off as a serious competitor to other resorts like the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va.

Although those two are older and bigger, Bedford Springs Resort now stands ready to take them on with good service, cushy rooms equipped with first-class furnishings and bedding, as well as the latest modern conveniences for techno guests (flat-screen televisions and iPod docking stations in all rooms and resort-wide wireless Internet access).

It's only fitting for an old girl like this to make a comeback. After all, she's seen her share of history and helped make some, too. The guest registers, soon to be on display, include presidents from Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor and James Buchanan to Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Rumor has it that as a favor to current investors, including Mark Langdale, who is U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, President Bush is expected to visit at some point.

Collection of history

Local resident William Defibaugh, who bought Bedford Springs memorabilia whenever any went on the auction block, saved chairs, chandeliers, fireplace tools and the hotel's register books, as well as the extensive collection of Bailey's photos and other treasures.

The result is that visitors don't have to imagine the past at Bedford Springs. They can see, feel and touch it.

They, too, can drop into rockers placed on the resort's porches, many of which that come with the rooms. Or every evening that weather permits, they can sit in hickory rockers around an outdoor fire pit and chat with old friends -- or make new ones.

Guests, who can see photos of earlier patrons "taking the waters," can find their own soothing soaks, rubs and "therapies" in the Springs Eternal Spa, where natural springs still provide the coveted waters.

Golfers who want a taste of golfing history can play the 18-hole course that's a hybrid of three eras of American golf architecture. Preserving attributes designed by golf course architects Spencer Oldham, A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross, Bedford Springs' greens have been restored.

For many visitors, the views of the past add depth to the experience.

Bailey's photos are everywhere, thanks to the decorating team's strategy. They're in restaurants, hallways, sitting rooms and bedrooms. They're even on the cleverly done do-not-disturb cards for guestroom doors.

Don't want anyone knocking on the door? Hang up the "Privacy Please" side picturing a Victorian couple from the rear, with the fellow's arm coyly stretched around his lady's waist. Want the bed made? The "Housekeeping Please" tag pictures a fellow with hat, suit coat, bow tie and apron, toting a rag and cleaning bucket.

The first three of Bailey's subjects to keep me company are Joe Thripp, Minnie Bixler and Miss Hawley. The three portraits are clustered on the wall above my table in the Crystal Dining Room.

But as I wait for the chefs to prepare my dinner in the open kitchen, the sparkle of nine restored crystal chandeliers casts a glow over hundreds more portraits of turn-of-the-century guests at Bedford Springs.

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