100-year-old Summit Hotel gets a face-lift

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An old postcard shows the Summit Hotel in its earlier days.
By Marylynne Pitz
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

FARMINGTON -- The hotel staircase where she once hid is gone, a casualty of the indoor pool. But Karen Harris, who spent her childhood as "Eloise" of the Summit Hotel rather than Manhattan's famous Plaza, still runs the Fayette County inn her parents began managing 50 years ago.

The Summit Hotel, which opened in 1907, has undergone a renovation to mark its 100th anniversary. It is situated along the National Road on the Chestnut Ridge.
Click photo for larger image.

Summit Inn Resort

Where: 101 Skyline Drive, Farmington, PA 15437
Phone: 724-438-8594.
Web site: www.summitinnresort.com.

The historic hotel, located on the National Road, opened in 1907 and celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer. In anticipation of that benchmark, Mrs. Harris, her husband, Randall, and the hotel's 80 employees have given 94 rooms a face-lift with new bedspreads, fresh paint, wallpaper, bathroom renovations and tasteful colors.

"We did it. That's why it looks homey, not like a cookie-cutter franchised hotel," Mrs. Harris said with a trace of pride in her voice.

To celebrate, the hotel will offer guests a lineup of activities on July Fourth and Labor Day weekend, including steak roasts, games for children, table tennis, shuffleboard, checkers, wine and cheese parties, a champagne brunch, outdoor pool activities and live entertainment.

Probably some bingo, too.

"They always played bingo five nights a week back in the day. We'd always do it right after dinner. People paid $1 for their card," Mrs. Harris recalled, adding that prizes were awarded.

The inn was opened by a group of wealthy Uniontown businessmen and served as the foundation for Fayette County tourism. Initially, wealthy visitors made up the hotel's clientele. As automobiles became affordable for middle-class Americans, average folks began signing the guest register.

Located at a height of 2,550 feet atop the Allegheny Mountains' Chestnut Ridge, the hotel offers a commanding view of four Western Pennsylvania counties and a lush valley. On a fine spring day, lunch on the hotel's inviting verandah is an unmitigated pleasure, especially because the crab cakes, made by executive chef Ray Paris, are all lump crab, no filler.

From this vantage point, you can see water slowly filling the outdoor, Olympic-sized pool built by Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel. The company touted it as an example of the all-steel, modern pool in its promotional literature in the 1930s.

In that same decade, Johnny Weissmuller, the handsome star who played Tarzan in the movies, once performed on the hotel's diving board, now gone because of liability concerns.

Also during the 1930s, guests could be "King for a Day." That $50 package included an unlimited expense account that covered the guest room, food, drinks and every sport facility. Guests who took advantage of that offer were encouraged to start their day with champagne and Russian caviar and end it with steaks and Maine lobster.

"We were just laughing about what it would cost to be king for a day now," Mrs. Harris said, noting that the price of some champagne bottles can run to four figures.

Travelers who crave authenticity may like the hotel's expansive Arts and Crafts-style lobby, which includes Gustave Stickley Mission-style furniture, stained-glass lamps and windows, dark cypress woodwork and a massive stone fireplace made from boulders quarried on the property. If the mountain air grows too cool in the summer, the night manager lights a fire.

The rooms at the Summit Inn are all furnished differently.
Click photo for larger image.  
Finding the Summit

There's also a Steinway piano from the 1880s and a comfortable nook where guests can play checkers. To appreciate this stunning space, some visitors may wish for several more kilowatts of light -- I certainly did.

The hotel's list of notable guests is a small Who's Who of America -- automobile pioneer Henry Ford; Harvey Firestone, the tire tycoon; Thomas Edison, the inventor; and John Burroughs, the naturalist, who all stayed at the inn in 1918 after their car broke down, derailing one of the group's regular camping trips. Firestone's room, No. 151, is intact.

A year earlier, in 1917, Mr. Ford and Mr. Edison raced cars here.

"The Summit Mountain was used to test cars. It was dangerous," said Randall M. Harris, Mrs. Harris' husband.

There's also a suite named for President Warren G. Harding, who loafed here with his friend, U.S. Sen. William E. Crow, whose Chalk Hill home and farm are now the Christian W. Klay Winery, another local attraction. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon, and Henry Clay Frick, the steel titan, made time to relax here, too.

All that history buttressed an excellent case for placing the inn on the National Register of Historic Places, which occurred just two years ago. Clinton Piper, the consultant who prepared the nomination, wrote that the Summit is "an excellent example of early 20th-century commercial roadside architecture built during the National Road's period of rebirth," which was from 1901-45, the era when America's love affair with the car intensified.

The hotel endured hard times during the Depression and in the 1940s when gas was rationed during World War II.

Golfers who stay here can play a par 35, regulation nine-hole golf course, which often accommodates guests from Nemacolin who want a tee time at the ritzier resort but can't get it.

At right is Karen Harris, owner of the Summit Inn, with daughter Amanda Mae Leskinen, left, and mother Eunice Shoemaker.
Click photo for larger image.

"Pete Dye's father played his first round of golf here in the 1920s," Mrs. Harris said, adding that he returned to Medina, Ohio, afterward and designed his first golf course. Sam Parks, a U.S. Open golf champion in 1931, was the inn's resident pro from 1930-32. Today, golfers who stand at the Summit's No. 4 green can see U.S. Steel Tower.

The resort also attracts architecture lovers from all over the world who come to see two Frank Lloyd Wright homes -- Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Guests also are drawn to Fayette County's historic sights and battlefields and outdoor recreation.

The Summit is certainly authentic, but even that virtue can be overdone, and a few touches might improve its overall ambience. Some of the furniture in the ground floor recreation area has seen better days. The Baron Munchausen room, scene of late-night revelries, smells rather musty. The building's exterior would improve with the installation of window boxes filled with flowers, which would give it a European touch.

Mrs. Harris' parents, Eunice and Donald Shoemaker, started managing the property in 1957. That first year required a lot of change and elbow grease.

"When my parents moved here in 1957, the rooms were so run down that they renovated 10 rooms quickly and invited their friends here," Mrs. Harris said. They also added bay windows.

The Shoemakers bought the property in 1964 and changed its name to Summit Inn Resort. The couple excavated to add a large banquet area on the ground floor called the Henry Ford Room, an indoor pool and 21 more rooms.

Nowadays, guests stay an average of two or three days, although some, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have driven to the hotel and stayed for a week, Mrs. Harris said.

There's now a ground-floor recreation area featuring two billiards tables, two Ping-Pong tables and an Olympic-sized indoor pool. A fitness room offers four elliptical machines and three treadmills.

For guests who use wheelchairs, there is a ramp at the end of the dining room on the first floor, and 15 rooms on the lobby level will accommodate them. But the hotel lacks an elevator.

"My father always tried to figure out where he could put one. He would have had to put three in," Mrs. Harris said.

Management will continue to be a family affair.

During this centennial summer, Amanda Mae Leskinen, the Harrises' daughter, will start learning how to manage the resort. A Washington and Jefferson College graduate, where she earned a degree in business, Mrs. Leskinen believes that maintaining the hotel's historic character while offering modern amenities is a tough balancing act.

"Many people have come back here year after year and really appreciate the changes we've made," Mrs. Harris said.

Eunice and Donald Shoemaker with daughter Karen. The Shoemakers came to the hotel in 1957, and their daughter and her husband run it now.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette staff writer Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or mpitz@post-gazette.com .


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