Historic hotel seeking new owner
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Pennsylvania House, a fixture at 103 Main St. in Walnutport since its opening in 1869, has been put up for sale by Carl Fenstermaker, who owned and operated the hotel with his late wife, Marjorie, since 1976.
Pennsylvania House, the last operating hotel from Walnutport's canal and railroad era, is looking for a new owner.
The Pennsylvania House has been a fixture at 103 Main St. since its opening in 1869. It has been put up for sale by Carl Fenstermaker, who owned and operated the hotel with his late wife, Marjorie, since 1976.
The hotel has 10 furnished rooms and four apartments plus a basement and attic. Its main floor once housed Fenstermaker's Changing Scene restaurant and the Globe & Compass Pub.
The Fenstermakers grew up in Walnutport's sister borough, Slatington. They met in high school, and in 1960 after Carl graduated from Muhlenberg College with a degree in physics, they moved to the Washington D.C. area where he worked in the National Bureau of Standards.
During a family visit over Christmas of 1975, "We noticed the Pennsylvania House was for sale," Fenstermaker said. "Our hobby was to go to restaurants we went to over 300 restaurants.
"We always wanted to have our own restaurant," he continued. "We thought that with this building, we could have a great restaurant here. We returned in January and it was still for sale. We had a dream."
The acquisition quickly became complicated. To qualify for a liquor license, the Fenstermakers had to meet Pennsylvania residency requirements. Although they had lived their entire life in Pennsylvania, because they were living outside the commonwealth for the past five years, they were not eligible. To meet the requirements, they incorporated in Pennsylvania as Changing Scene Ltd.
Carl and Marjorie envisioned an international gourmet restaurant serving dishes like beef bourguignon, moussaka and duck a l'orange. They redecorated the dining room using timbers from an old barn on the property to create an English Tudor/London Pub feeling. They preserved the tin ceiling, and created booths with international themes and tables with chess and checkerboards.
They bought the Pennsylvania House in 1976. In May, they opened the Globe & Compass Pub, and the following year, opened the formal dining room as the Changing Scene Ltd. Restaurant. It was the first restaurant in the area to offer nonsmoking dining. In the summer, candlelit meals were served outdoors.
At first, the historic hotel serving international cuisine drew diners from Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and Philadelphia; but by the late 1970s, the OPEC oil cutbacks and resulting price increases had prospective diners thinking twice about going for a long and expensive drive just for dinner.
"The restaurant business wasn't easy," Fenstermaker noted. "During the gas crisis, people wouldn't drive 20 miles. I had nights when I served only two dinners."
They closed the restaurant, leased the bar, and rented rooms to construction workers and skiers. The restaurant was briefly reopened with a steak and lobster menu, but closed again after six months. Briefly, in his basement, Fenstermaker operated a shop manufacturing infant carriers.
Marjorie took a job as a bar manager at Chi Chi's, and when an opening developed back in the Washington D.C. area, she took it. Carl soon followed, getting a job at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. They became absentee landlords, leaving management of the Pennsylvania House to their relatives.
Carl retired in 1996, and he and Marjorie returned to the Pennsylvania House. After Marjorie passed away, Carl found operating the hotel was too much work for one person. He received help from his sister-in-law, Lillian Hoffman. Hoffman had been the office manager, typing recipes on index cards and keeping the books, since the earliest days the Fenstermakers owned the hotel.
"My sister-in-law dreamed it would be a bed and breakfast," Hoffman said. The Jersey Central railroad tracks run alongside the hotel, and the Lehigh River and Canal, and the trail head of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor hiking and biking trail are just blocks away.
The Pennsylvania House was built in 1868 for Phaon and Lucy Bittner, and stayed in the family for 80 years, until 1948 when it was sold to Roland Snyder. In 1962, Snyder sold it to Pete and Lucy Essick. After Pete passed away, Lucy Essick sold the hotel to Carl and Marjorie Fenstermaker.
In 2008, a historical marker was placed to honor the Pennsylvania House and the Slate Exchange Hotel, a hotel that once was located across Main Street from the establishment.
There will be tours of the Pennsylvania House on May 2 from 1 to 4 p.m. For information, call (610) 217-1293.