Springs Awakening

Rocking chairs and docking stations: The Bedford Springs Resort combines historic features with modern amenities.
Rocking chairs and docking stations: The Bedford Springs Resort combines historic features with modern amenities. (By Richard Nowitz)
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dallas developer Keith Evans was skeptical when his business partner told him about a resort property in central Pennsylvania that first opened in 1805, had its heyday in the early to mid-1900s and closed in 1984.

Four other developers had spent a few million trying to reopen the historic Bedford Springs Hotel. Each walked away, first selling off whatever they could to recoup some of their losses. Things like coverlets from the 1830s and hotel registry books signed by former guests, including Daniel Webster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Aaron Burr and Benjamin Franklin.

It was seeing those artifacts, jammed into a house owned by Bedford collector William Defibaugh, that first softened Evans to the idea of working on a multi-year restoration project estimated to cost $60 million. His partner, after showing Evans the items Defibaugh had collected, finally took him to the derelict property.

"When I turned the corner, I couldn't help but fall in love," Evans says. "The history, the setting, the architecture, all just sitting there, waiting to come alive." Evans signed on.

Last month, seven years and $120 million later -- twice as much as anticipated -- the hotel opened its doors as the Bedford Springs Resort. The property's newest incarnation means that Washington area residents have within a four-hour drive a choice of three upscale, historic resorts with destination spas.

Although Bedford Springs is not as large as either West Virginia's Greenbrier or Virginia's Homestead and doesn't have as many activities, it is less expensive. Still, none of the three is for budget travelers. Standard rooms at Bedford Springs, which accommodate up to four people, begin at $224 a night, plus an $18 resort fee.

While the resort -- visited in the past by such business titans as Henry Ford, John Wanamaker and Jay Gould -- has its luxurious touches, it doesn't feel stuffy. It is elegant but not glitzy.

Another plus: its proximity to Washington, about 2 1/2 hours from the Beltway. It's also just four miles from the historic town of Bedford, whose antiques stores are expanding in anticipation of spillover business from the resort.

The 216-room resort includes 2,200 acres set in a broad green valley sheltered by mountains. My room included a high-definition television hidden inside an armoire, plush beds with soft linens, an iPod docking station, a porch with rocking chairs.

Formal teas are served in the main lobby, with two massive fireplaces and a circular staircase leading to a ballroom. In the lobby, a bellboy delivered the first-ever transatlantic cable. Sent by Britain's Queen Victoria 149 years ago, it was received by President James Buchanan.

I strolled from the lobby to a library, past some of the 400 photographs of visitors that Defibaugh had collected and then sold back to the hotel. Aristocrats with haughty looks, men in suits and women in flowing dresses and fancy hats pose for what in the late 1800s were rare photographs, taken by professionals.

Since the property is a National Historic Landmark, every piece of the renovation and addition had to be approved and stay as close to the original as possible. The library windows, for example, have the original glass, wavy with age. Look closely and you'll see the names of women etched into the glass. Someone once tested the true diamond quality of her new engagement ring by using the diamond to write in the glass, and the test became a tradition.

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