Sustainable Magic: Restoring the Allure of Bedford Springs
The magic begins with groundwater. It was the water, rising up through limestone fissures, that made my hometown a resort town, a destination for pilgrims and tourists for almost 200 years.
Even before the cluster of seven mineral springs just south of Bedford, Pennsylvania, was marketed as a destination, it existed as a gathering place of healing. The Iroquois, Shawnee, and Tuscarora, it’s said, knew how to effect cures through discreet ingestion of the waters. Word spread, and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the valetudinarians—as they are called in Belknap’s 1832 Gazetteer of the State of Pennsylvania, the sick pilgrims who came from Carlisle and Lancaster, Philadelphia and beyond, and camped on the 2,200-acre property bought by Dr. John Anderson in 1803—were the targeted demographic. They needed help, and long trips and crude accommodations were secondary to the goal of restored health.
As public belief in mineral cures grew, so did 19th-century spa destinations: Hot Springs, Saratoga Springs, White Sulfur Springs—other waters where the sick could take the cure. But Bedford Springs, with its unique sources of waters infused with sulfur, magnesia, iron, salt, and sweetness, offered a broader scope of modalities, an experience enhanced by the beauty of the Alleghenies. Belknap notes, “The water, however, is not the only agent in ministering to the diseased. The pure, elastic air of the mountain, where there are no miasmatic effluvia—the elevation of the country, which counteracts the morbid the effects of the sun—the change of scene and the exercise on rugged roads, and various and cheerful company, all contribute to the amelioration of health.”
The scene changed for locals, who watched Anderson’s campground become a fancy resort. Beginning in 1804, with the construction of the first of the architecturally eclectic and important buildings that would become the Bedford Springs Hotel, the reputation of the restorative environment created demand for additional venues where increasingly affluent pilgrims could drink, bathe, and wade in the waters, purge themselves, and essentially vacation. Buildings, bath houses, gazebos, music, dining, dancing, tennis, and lawn games amplified the ambiance.
By the mid-1800s, the Bedford Springs Hotel had achieved luxury resort status, and had been discovered by the D.C. crowd. Frequent guests included Presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, and James Buchanan, who made it his summer White House. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun visited. And in 1855, the U.S. Supreme Court gathered at the Springs to discuss the Dred Scott case. It was a retreat fit for statesmen and orators.
By the end of the Victorian era, spa resorts became accessible to the growing upper-middle class, who could come to our town to swim in the spring-fed, Olympic-sized indoor pool and play golf on the 9-hole course redesigned in 1912 by A. W. Tillinghast. It was a time of expanded appeal, affluence, and great marketability. As guest Arthur Arnold writes on a postcard to Miss Marion Diehl of Pittsburgh in August 1916, “Hello Marion: You should be along. This is simply great. Air is so pure and water so refreshing that it would make you grow an inch every day.”
The allure of the refreshing waters remained for a long time, even as their efficacy was questioned. In the 1920s, the hotel’s resident physician, Dr. William Fitch, hoping to demonstrate sound science, developed the “Bedford Cure” —a three-week program that prescribed mineral waters, baths, diet, exercise, and fresh air.
The air was still fresh and inviting 20 years later, when World War II filled the resort with transients and required that the hotel subjugate its gentility for practical patriotism, housing Naval trainees from 1941 to 1943, then interned Japanese diplomats and their families from 1943 to 45. In 1947, my father returned to civilian life, and moved his little family to Bedford, settling into the picturesque town in a house on South Richard Street, 3 minutes north of the resort.
Bedford Springs was also returning to peacetime prosperity. The palpable prestige of being a respectable, high-end tourist destination returned quickly and sustained the town in the post-war years. The Springs, as my parents and their new friends knew it, occupied a dual existence in their consciousness: hospitality machine to attract and serve strangers; country club for locals.
In the 1950s, it was a seasonal resort, closed for the snowy mountain winters. In summer, it was the place where my parents went dancing, and the scent of Chanel No. 5 wafted along the verandas. To my generation, it was a place where our mothers could wear mink stoles and eat tea sandwiches, and fathers could order pink prime rib with au jus, then light a cigar on the colonnade that arched over Route 220. It was where my parents’ crowd played golf and spent afternoons in the Club House, drinking gin and tonics amid smells of sun tan oil, cigarettes, and Sterno.
The hotel and its quasi-public amenities—the manmade lake the Navy created, the 1928 Donald Ross golf course, riding trails, spring water flowing from the rocks over Shover’s Run—were emotionally ours. Yet we knew that it was the families from cities that stayed for weeks and the large conventions that sustained the hotel, made it possible for the locals to have access to the golf course and the pools and Red Oaks Lake, to book their proms and wedding showers in its gracious rooms.
By the 1960s, it seemed the Springs had realized its commercial potential, showcasing golf pros and summer stock theater, but even then the rooms were getting a little shabby, and when its managers tried to keep the hotel open one winter to accommodate the local ski trade, it stayed largely vacant as steam rose hauntingly from the empty indoor pool.
Two decades later, in 1984, the resort was designated a National Historic Landmark and given endangered site status. But being rare and valuable wasn’t enough to keep the Springs in business. In 1986, the Bedford Springs Resort was closed, its contents sold at auction, its hulking, empty splendor tucked against the mountain like an old dog that knows it’s dying. Twenty more years passed without a guest, without baskets of petunias hanging along the promenade. Potential guests raised their children in that time, who grew up without ever seeing the Springs, vacationing elsewhere—maybe Captiva, maybe Tahoe.
Development proposals came and went, unfunded, unsustainable, and with them, the town’s resort identity. Some of them—like the concept that would have incorporated the Pittsburgh Symphony’s plans for a summer concert venue—would have transformed the entire community, filled the valley with music in addition to fireflies, made Bedford another Wolf Trap or Ravinia, an artsy, magical place.
But nothing worked. Reality replaced the most romantic memories. The old grand dame sunk further and further into decay, and ghosts of children rolling hoops across the lawn dissolved.
Sometimes, there are happy endings. Sometimes the right people find each other just in time, share visions, and nearly-lost treasures are recovered.
That’s what happened in 1998, when wealthy investors with an appreciation of history and architecture, and the will to market a legend, purchased the property for $8 million. Believing that they could bring back the magic, in 2004 Bedford Resort Partners, Ltd. began work on the 216-room hotel, spa, and golf course. In July 2007, after three years of restoration designed to return the hotel to its 1905 opulence, and significant new construction funded by a public-private investment of $120 million, guests will return to the Springs.
In all, 250,000 guests are expected annually. Texas-based Benchmark Hospitality International, the management firm hired to run the resort, will reach out to group markets in Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and eventually New York. For the leisure market, history will repeat itself, as the D.C. crowd is wooed back to the mountains by the waters and the chance to escape the miasmatic effluvium of the city.
History will be inescapable. The resort’s reproduction decor and its meticulous integration of antiques with new furnishings, along with the housing of the Bedford Historical Society on the grounds—including its extensive collection of Springs ephemera—promises ever-present access to the past.
Made meaningful by its history, the new resort will offer its guests pleasures unknown in 1905. Purgative water cures will be replaced with gentler treatments, such as cucumber and linden flower facials and yoga. The hotel that made telecommunications history in 1858 when Buchanan received the first transatlantic cable from Queen Victoria will offer its guests Internet connectivity, Teledex phones, 32-inch LCD flat screen TVs, and CD/MP3 players with iPod docking stations. On the trails, rather than walking sticks and botanical notebooks, guests will be outfitted with locally-made Cannondale mountain bikes and GPS units.
As the guests return for a third century of retreat and restoration, they will return also to its waters. The springs will feed the restored historic indoor pool, the new $1.5 million outdoor pool and the newly constructed 30,000-square-foot Springs Eternal Spa, which will offer “signature bathing.”
Restoration does not come cheaply. Whether for a national treasure or the human body and spirit, there’s a price tag. The advance advertised daily rate for the Springs Eternal Spa package—which includes a guided hiking tour of the seven springs, healthy breakfast, light lunch, dinner and use of fitness facilities—begins at $435 per person.
As health-conscious consumers seeking a spa experience find their way to the restored landmark, the historic town of Bedford—its image inexorably tied to the Springs—is regaining its allure, its destination identity. In town, the antique dealers and gallery owners are getting ready to be discovered by new guests who will appreciate their merchandise, who will again find the town and its people charming. In Bedford, Pennsylvania, after 21 years, the magic is returning. The resort season is underway.
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