If These Walls Could TalkMar 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Carolyn Straniere
The heartbeat of small-town America was once Main Street, and the weekly outing to town was quite the social event for many a resident. A stroll through downtown Wellsboro today provides glimpses of that earlier life, one where you could buy groceries at various markets (vegetable, meat, and fish), purchase sundries at the general store, stop by the shoemaker for new soles, or perhaps conduct a bit of business at the bank or post office. Rich in history and style, Wellsboro’s Main Street has stood the test of time, even if the businesses have changed. One of its notable buildings and businesses is the Penn Wells Hotel at 62 Main Street, a downtown staple since 1926.
The current structure was built in 1869; however there has been a tavern, inn, or hotel on that corner since 1816. After a fire in 1866 burned the original building, the property sat vacant for three years until A.P. Cone purchased it and constructed the building we see today. The first guests to the Cone House, as it was called, were not visitors here for leisure but workers in Wellsboro’s local industries. After Cone’s death, the hotel changed hands and names a few times—Holiday Inn (1873), Parkhurst House (late 1870s), and the Coles House (1885).
In 1896, major renovations were made to the hotel, including refacing of the original brick, painting the woodwork red, installing tin on the leaky hotel roof, and opening a new barroom. Ten years later, on a cold March morning, a fire would claim the hotel’s fourth floor and damage the other three.
The hotel was sold again in 1921, becoming the Wellsboro Inn. Improvements by the new owner were never completed, and in October of 1925, the doors were once again shuttered.
“The hotel was in danger of being torn down at this point. A group of community members formed the Wellsboro Hotel Company, with hopes of preventing its demise,” explains Ellen Dunham Bryant, who, today, is president of that company. Among them were Leonard Harrison, Horace Packer, and Roy Dunham (local business owner and Ellen’s great-grandfather). Their efforts paid off and a complete renovation soon began, along with a new moniker: The Penn Wells Hotel.
“The hotel has two parts, the early period from 1876-1926, and from 1926 to the present,” says Ellen. The 1920s saw the era of Art Deco, which influenced the design and style of the interior. Hexagon tiles in the lobby, mahogany wood, and simple, clean lines throughout welcomed travelers to the area. The Penn Wells prospered and soon became a destination instead of just a stopping point along the Roosevelt Highway/Route 6 (which connected Chicago and New York), even during the Depression.
Regular bus service from New York City (a nine-and-a-half-hour bus ride at the time), along with trains from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, carried passengers to the Penn Wells. Even celebrities, the likes of Groucho Marx and Joan Crawford, enjoyed a bit of respite here.
“Back in 1926, Prohibition was in place, so the lounge was called the Assembly Room. It was where the Rotary held their meetings and locals gathered,” explains Ellen. “It didn’t become a lounge as we know it until 1937, even though Prohibition ended in December 1933. The stigma of women being in a bar lessened after Prohibition, and the lounge was never just a men’s-only venue.”
In 1931, the lounge got its focal point—the fireplace.
“When there’s a chill in the air outside and the fire is roaring inside, the best place to be is sitting in the lounge, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace,” says Shawn Bryant, Ellen’s husband and CEO of the company. “What’s nice about the lounge is that it’s tucked away from the main lobby, so it’s a bit quieter and a great place to relax.”
There were repairs and updates to the lounge over the years, such as the addition of televisions in the 1950s, but nothing like the undertaking of 2020.
“It was more preservation than renovation,” explains Ellen. “We wanted to make it how it would have been back then.” Since the building is over 150 years old, that presented its own set of challenges.
“We wanted to be cognizant of keeping it how it was. However, materials used in the 1920s aren’t readily available now,” Ellen says. “How do you find mahogany that was locally sourced back then in today’s world?” But they did, possibly from the same timber pile.
Part of the recent renovation included replacing the fire brick and redoing the flooring. The bar itself got an upgrade as well. “It’s an L shape now, which added more seating, and the top is a beautiful black granite, reminiscent of the marble from the 1930s,” Ellen says.
Where old wallpaper in a bookshelf pattern had been, today you’ll see real bookshelves. The familiar beer steins have found a new home nestled there, and it all gives the room an even cozier vibe.
After decades of changes on Main Street, the Penn Wells Hotel has remained an anchor throughout. “We are part of Historic Hotels of America, a program dedicated to preserving historic integrity and architecture,” Ellen says. They were given that recognition in 2017, one of only 295 hotels in the country to have earned that title. No doubt the lounge played a role in that designation.
“It’s part of the entire travel experience—to sit, grab a bite to eat, and savor the atmosphere of an era gone by,” Shawn notes. “No wonder the lounge is still a favorite gathering place for travelers and locals alike.”
Find out more at (570) 724-2111, on Facebook, or pennwells.com. Winter lounge hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to close; spring/summer hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 4 p.m. to close. Close times vary.