Watching over a sleeping inn

As regional travel booms, young preservationist sees a future for a darkened Poconos gem

| 02 Aug 2021 | 03:22

A weathered and neglected thing dating from the late 1700s, the abandoned farmhouse in New Hanover Township in central Pennsylvania was mostly overlooked or outright ignored by the locals. But Tyler Schumacher, then a college student majoring in historic preservation, felt it was an important piece of history. Overgrown though it was, he set about fighting to save it from demolition.

The salvation of the old homestead was not to be. Though the house he’d fought was razed in the spring of 2016, the failure wasn’t a total loss. It had solidified in Schumacher a resolve one only finds through hardship. He had learned that his singular voice had inspired others to the cause, and that there were many out there like him, passionate about history, advocating for adaptive reuse of historic properties, seeing in blighted buildings not only a past but a future. He followed this inspiration, quickly becoming involved in preservation groups, and in 2019 founding his own: The Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society, a nonprofit devoted to protecting endangered historic structures and advocating for their future use. “In this disposable world we live in,” the group’s website says, “it is important to preserve and save our history for our future.”

It wasn’t until this summer that the organization popped up on my radar. My partner and I – ever attuned to crumbling old buildings – had noticed a peeling, historic inn on our regular drive from our home to Pocono Lakes, PA to visit our doctor’s office. Many of the roads to get there are winding, thin, potholed and densely wooded, with few landmarks to mark your journey. The major exception comes in the form of a big old inn known as the Sterling, which by now we knew meant we were over halfway to our destination. It’s gorgeous, so much so that when we first passed it we actually stopped the car and got out to admire it for some minutes before continuing on. As the months and seasons passed, the place came to look more and more depressed, with gutters failing and plant life strangling the structure during the summer months. Every time we passed it, the old inn would spark a conversation about how we hoped someone would help the old place out before it was too late. Enter Schumacher.

On our way home, this time we saw a bright white sign standing tall even among the weeds and un-mowed grasses of the front lawn. Its bold red letters read, “HELP RESTORE STERLING,” and underneath, the Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society’s website. I sent off an email that evening, and a few days later I was meeting up with Schumacher on the grounds – this time, with a slightly more official invitation than the last.

Upon my arrival, a side door to the inn was slightly ajar, the board that usually covers it pulled aside. In the dim light of what used to be the office behind the front desk, Schumacher and I talked. On the countertop a sat a landline phone with a large switchboard, once connected to the many rooms of guests. Now it sits silent and dust-covered like the entirety of the inn itself, which remains as it was on the day the final guest checked out years ago -- tables in the restaurant set for patrons, Christmas decor hung in the lobby, even some of the guestroom beds still made. It all stood around us undisturbed, like a memory you could reach out and lay your hands upon.

As it turned out, Schumacher’s discovery of the inn had occurred not unlike my own, when he happened to drive past. “My family and I have vacationed in this area my entire life, and I’ve watched this place go downhill,” he said. “One day I drove by and I was like, you know, I’m going to contact the owners.”

That’s how the Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society came to be a kind of caretaker, there to ensure the safekeeping of the inn until such a time that a new owner can take the reins. On the day of my visit, Schumacher explained, they were installing cameras and lights to keep would-be curiosity seekers at bay, and to identify anyone causing harm to the property. The reception to his restoration efforts has been overwhelmingly positive, he said. “Many locals have been waiting for something like this to come down the pipeline. They’ve also been really helpful doing cleanup work and checking on the property.”

Schumacher’s vision is to see the building as it once was, large stone fireplaces ablaze as they might have been in the booming resort era of last century. It’s a hope that he may actually see come to pass, as travel and vacationing to the Poconos and Catskills is finally seeing a renaissance after decades of fading interest. “I’m here to make sure this building doesn’t deteriorate any farther, and to find a new owner who can properly restore it,” he said. “We just need to keep it from deteriorating until then.”