By Jeff Gammage, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Mar. 22, 2007 - The Perkiomen Bridge Hotel was built in 1689. It has failed in several recent incarnations, and history buffs fear it could be torn down.
The inn has stood by the banks of the Perkiomen Creek for as long as the United States has existed. Longer, actually.
The Perkiomen Bridge Hotel went up about 1689 and was enlarged in 1701 as a stop on the Philadelphia-to-Reading carriage line.
But in modern times it has failed in incarnations including sports bar and high-end restaurant. Its location is problematic -- great if you're arriving by stagecoach, lousy if you're coming by car.
Now, with "For Sale" signs tacked to its exterior, history buffs fear the Collegeville inn may soon meet its end.
"They'd never ever tear down something like this in New England," said an angry Gordon MacElhenney, a township supervisor in nearby Perkiomen, active in local historical circles.
No sale agreement exists, said real estate agent Blair Gilbert -- but one could be signed soon, and there's no telling what a new owner might do with the inn. The only sure way for MacElhenney or anyone else to save the inn, Gilbert said, "is to come up with the money."
That would be $1.5 million, the price posted on the Re/Max Web site. No liquor- or business-license is included in the sale, and the best use, the listing notes bluntly, "may be land."
Many old Pennsylvania inns have found themselves caught between cultural worth and contemporary economics, their shapes and sites complicating any potential re-use.
The Perkiomen Bridge Hotel is no different. Out back, by the water, it is easy to imagine the property as it looked 300 years ago. In front, it's another story.
On one side is a Monro Muffler shop. Across the street is a Ford dealership. The inn sits hard on the intersection of Main Street and Route 29, an impossibly awkward convergence of traffic where the stoplights last forever.
The region's old inns can present painful choices, said Temple University professor Morris Vogel, an authority on Philadelphia history.
It's important for local leaders to look hard at what a building means and what it offers, to imaginatively envision new uses, he said. But not every structure can be saved, and people should not "feel obligated to maintain buildings that can't play a role in the community."
The Perkiomen hotel is being sold by the estate of James Overstreet, who headed a corporation called Perkiomen Bridge Hotel Inc.
Once known as Lane's Hotel, the big inn stands three stories tall, its chimneys reaching toward a sky where birds of prey circle over wooded creek banks. Despite rotting window sills, patches of failing stucco and more than a few missing shutters, the inn retains its dignity.
"Everyone around here values it a lot and would be heartbroken if they saw it come down," said Myrna Knaide, president of the historical society of Trappe, Collegeville and Perkiomen Valley.
In another age, the hotel provided more than food and shelter. Before the Internet and TV, before railroads and cars, inns were hubs of news and social activity.
In the mid-18th century there was an inn every two miles on the roads leaving Philadelphia. By 1786, Montgomery County had an estimated 71 inns and taverns, among them the venerable hotel in Collegeville.
Construction of the stone bridge that gave the inn its name began in 1797 -- too many people had drowned attempting to ford the creek. By that time, the hotel had been vibrant for 100 years, and it would remain so for many more. In 1899, the proprietor was cited for unruly crowds engaged in "shouting, whooping, pounding of drums, using profane language and drunkenness."
In the early 1900s, the inn was a popular stop for boaters. In the 1940s and 1950s, students from nearby Ursinus College met there to discuss campus projects.
"I'd like to see it go back to a bed-and-breakfast," said Linda Gallo, who lives a few doors away.
The last two decades have been hard on the place once billed as the nation's oldest continuously operating hotel.
In 1989, it was reinvented as a sports bar called, incongruously, Chicago. That failed. Two years later a novice restaurateur took over, but the inn shut again in 1993. It reopened in 1997 as an upscale restaurant, but that was short-lived, too.
"Something really should be done to restore the inn to its early prominence," said William Burnett, who has an office nearby. The problem, he said, is that that kind of restoration takes broad vision -- and big money.
Today the inn is shut and still. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, the bridge behind it added three years later. That designation does not necessarily protect the property from demolition.
MacElhenney said he was sure the hotel could be revived and become a draw for tourists seeking colonial charm. Washington's men camped all around the area, he noted.
"This is an inn," he said, "that needs to be restored."
PENNSYLVANIA INNS, SAVED AND LOST
--General Wayne Inn. The 300-year-old Merion location, scene of a 1996 murder and several failed restaurants, now houses the Chabad Center for Jewish Life, including a synagogue, Kosher restaurant and Lubavitch outreach center.
--Rose Tree Tavern. In 2004, the 22-story tavern was rolled to Rose Tree Park. It was a stagecoach stop in the 1790s, but in recent times had stood in the way of highway progress.
--King of Prussia Inn. The 280-year-old facility was moved to Bill Smith Boulevard, a half-mile away, in 2000 and now houses the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce. The inn had blocked a $250 million Route 202 improvement project.
--General Pike Hotel. The 186-year-old way stop at Routes 23 and 113 in Phoenixville was demolished in 1994 to make way for a bank branch -- that was eventually built elsewhere.
--Black Horse Inn. The Flourtown structure, built in 1744, is among four of eight colonial-era inns remaining on Bethlehem Pike. Once it served lime workers and farmers on the road between the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia. Now it's owned by Springfield Township and is under restoration.
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