Oct 26, 2016 06:00PM
There’s no romance to a stately old ruin when it’s in the center of town. Coudersport’s Old Hickory, an 1870s Italianate manse, is stark in its decrepitude. The south face lost most of its siding years ago; what remains elsewhere flakes gray paint. Weathered plywood fills some windows, but not all. Only pigeons call it home.
This icon of the town’s lumbering boom—and once a popular tavern—endured multiple owners and years of neglect and is now a denizen of Internet sites devoted to “creepy houses.”
“It’s been painful to watch,” says John B. Leete, Potter County’s senior judge.
But the spectacle of dissolution is about to change.
The Old Hickory changed hands again in August, and the new owner is already at work restoring it.
Wasyl Mauser, who has long owned a camp nearby, is a Northampton County contractor with restoration experience, says County Commissioner Susan Kefover. She recently toured the building with Mauser and says he plans to turn it into a bed and breakfast and wedding venue; his daughter, who’s completing a dental residency in New York City, will run it.
“It’s such a good thing,” says Kefover.
F.W. Knox, an attorney and one of the region’s early capitalists, who made money in lumber and railroads and financed the creation of the Potter Enterprise newspaper, constructed the house in the 1870s. It was one of the first truly grand structures in town.
The home was converted into an inn for travelers in 1928 and renamed the Old Hickory Tavern, a name it retained through various owners until the business closed in the late 1980s.
“It was such a huge part of the community,” says Leete, a friendly place where lawyers, teachers, merchants, and tradesmen gathered after work on a Friday night, and where they took their children for lunch on a Saturday afternoon.
George Stenhach, an attorney who moved to Coudersport in the early 1980s, says he’s never seen any place like it before or since. At it’s height, he says, the Old Hickory was “a place unique because, within relatively small confines, political enemies, people of different social strata, people who liked each other and didn’t all congregated.”
Stenhach remembers a local chiropractor removing a Viking helmet displayed on the wall, putting it on his head, and leading the bowling team around singing “We are the Champions.”
“And I remember a real Viking, Helge Lien, throwing axes at the dart board, while you had church-going ladies there applauding him,” he says.
Leete recalled being there on a Saturday afternoon with his kids and meeting the man who turned out to be the new minister: “The first place I met him—of all places—was the Old Hickory Tavern...it was just a vital part of the community.”
The irony of the Old Hickory’s decline is that it went to tatters while owned by the county’s richest family.
The Rigases, who founded and ran Adelphia Cable Communications, purchased the building in 1987, and they transferred ownership to Adelphia in 1995. Adelphia’s corporate headquarters was located directly across the street from the Old Hickory, and as the company grew into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, pigeons took up roost in the empty tavern.
It became a grim joke inside the company. An Adelphia executive once looked out the window at the eyesore across the street and declared it “the monument to corporate indecision.”
“We wanted to believe something would happen,” says Leete.
Local artist Maxine Shear, who had drawn all the major buildings in town, tried to embarrass the Rigases into action. She penned editorial cartoons of the Old Hickory for the Enterprise (the newspaper launched by Knox) with a sign in the yard that read “Help me!”
No help came.
Adelphia imploded in a $3.2 billion federal accounting fraud scandal in 2002, and before John and Tim Rigas were convicted and sent to prison, prosecutors used the Old Hickory as an object lesson for jurors. More than half a million dollars for antiques intended for the Old Hickory had been charged to the company books, but when a photo of the neglected and ramshackle building was put up on a screen, laughter rippled through the courtroom.
Adelphia unloaded the building in 2004 to new owners from outside Harrisburg, but they failed to fix it up.
At last, with the sounds of long-awaited renovation echoing through its emptiness, the Old Hickory has a new lease on life, and Coudersport residents a new hope for renaissance on Main Street.
“We all know it’s not going to go back to what it was before,” says Leete, but news of renovations is heartening.
“It’s the restoration—in all our hearts—of a treasure,” says Kefover.