Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Penn Hills Resort

For New Year’s celebrations, some prefer partying with throngs of lovely strangers in the city; some with many loved ones in a home furnished for social gatherings. This last year, the gang and I decided to do something a little different. We rang in the New Year in a game-laden hotel room, telling horrible stories of fiction one word and a time, eating family-restaurant chain congealed appetizers two hours before the drop, and, of course, trekking into the Pocono Mountains and visiting the fabled Penn Hills Resort.

Penn Hills first opened as a tavern in 1944 and grew to an intimate couples resort with over a hundred rooms before stumbling to a sad end in 2009. Many felt that its heart was gone long before officially closing seven years ago. In the cherished local history of the region (Monroe County in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania), many recall advertisements for the escape in the hills. It featured romantic (if gaudy) amenities such as heart-shaped hot tubs, round beds, and a wedding bell-shaped swimming pool. Penn Hills featured skiing, an ice rink, a golf course, and lighting features from the 1964 World’s Fair.

As noted, the Resort was in decline years before officially closing. Employees realized that the exuberant prices of $300 a night were blown away in competition by area hotels offering comparable rooms for a mere $55 a night. Some consider that the increasingly cheaper options for travel, such as flying versus driving hours into the mountains, further put Penn Hills away financially. When a co-founder died in 2009 at the age of 102, the Resort completely closed two months later, the employees never receiving their final paychecks, and the property owing the county over one million dollars in back taxes.

And as is the case in many of the stories told here, Penn Hills Resort then fell into disrepair, looting, vandalizing, and the elements.

I had seen the Resort in passing through the area many times, whether en route to other abandoned locales, or on visits to my beloved mountains, but was never able to put a name to the structures I lovingly referred to as, “hotels or apartments taken from the Soviet era,” (I assume due to the bright orange paint I fixated on passing through at fifty miles per hour previously). I had never been able to stop on foot and visit. Its proximity to the major road also makes one somewhat reluctant to simply stop and get out (the road cuts through the property, with structures on either side of the busy road). However, as this was our holiday, we willed it to see something different to celebrate, something mythical and abandoned, lost in time.

The turn of the New Year: an hour or so after the ball dropped, lulls in conversation approaching and a few party members falling asleep, I searched my phone for an exact address of area abandoned relics and showed Evan and Vin. Without a moment of hesitation, we were all in in selecting Penn Hills as our destination for the morning. A few other bits of HYBRID-brand nonsense occurred that night (not overlooking an infamous party popper incident…) and we all went to bed.

Vinnie and Lexie had a special archery class that morning that came with their room’s package, and Evan, Watermelon, Mairi, and myself struggled around the mountain highways for a bit, before finally finding a diner. With flurries starting to come down, Vinnie met us in the parking lot and in separate vehicles we targeted Penn Hills Resort. (Without going into too much detail, Vinnie and Lexie found and walked the property separate from our piece of the party, but we met up again in the parking lot of a closed-for-the-season ice cream parlor about a mile up the road, hyped.)

So, in my Escape, we do a pass-by of the Resort, confirming the address, and we are like children pressing their faces against Macy’s window during Christmas. We turn around, do one more pass-by, and decide that it should be clear to stop. Although we mean no harm, we do not want any attention or implication of vandalizing. With how frequently vehicles are flying by, I tell the team that I will stop, they get out and get out of eye-sight of the road, and just enjoy. I had known of the property for years, but was happy enough to just share in this moment with my friends, one hailing from as far away as Detroit. I let them out, they disappear, and I quickly back up a hill and behind a brush, waiting for them to finish their visit.

I sit there tapping my thumb on my steering wheel for a few minutes when I decide that, “Nah, I must experience this with my friends,” and bolt it out of my car, across the street, and meet Evan and the girls returning from behind the foremost structure. Apparently, they had not gone too far in before returning for me and I excitedly wave my arms like a madman and we rush back into the maw of the resort’s property. The path quickly opens up to the large pool area walled by multiple stories of the rooms of the resort. There are various pitfalls around the pool, signaling long-gone locations of plumbing and maintenance equipment. The pools sit in a sad state of non-upkeep, murky green and algae coating every surface. It is cold out, but we are in our element. Watermelon and I are rapidly taking pictures, her on her camera and I on my lackluster cellphone. We pass through what appears to be a lobby-area, where a dilapidated bar and row of stools sit in varying levels of knocked-the-eff-down. Glass shards now replace the bay-windows that were probably previously beautiful. Graffiti pieces are everywhere: some, pure art; others, phallic indecencies and mentions of Adolf Hitler. It is all beautiful in the melancholy romanticism of urban decay in a beautiful rural setting.

Evan runs up a hill which leads to a small village of cabin-like villas, and we further explore back beyond the pools into facilities which look like rentals the size of townhouses. When Evan returns, we check out a few rooms of the bottom floor and find maintenance rooms, guest rooms, and otherwise capsules of disarray. We pick around a little longer when we hear a rustle a floor or two above us. It sounds like it could purely be an animal, but the metallic ring was enough to get us to get a move on. We gather the crew and start moving back to the car when we hear rustling through the brush to our right. Evan and I freeze, protective “mom protecting her passenger with her arm” arms out, and realize it is just another hipster couple doing exactly what we are doing, cameras around their neck.

We get back to the Escape and at this point, there are three or four other vehicles parked and their former occupants roaming the Resort’s grounds. I silently sigh to myself at our previous bout of paranoia, but you can never be too careful with these adventures. I quickly take a picture of iconic Penn Hills Resort road sign and drive us down the hidden embankment that was concealing the car. We merge back onto road and we eventually find ourselves on the way back home to Jersey. We had barely scratched the surface of what the Resort truly had to offer, but I will never forget what that small sojourn had provided us.

Upon this writing, I found a bit of exciting news. Just over a month after our holiday visit, the property of the Penn Hills Resort was finally sold. While only 63 of the 500 acres was sold, the former property managers were quoted to have been happy to be finally rid of it. Let’s see what the future holds for the Penn Hills Resort and its legacy.

Further reading:

Photo credits: myself and Watermelon