Springs Awakening

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.

Small, shimmering pieces of Italian tile lead to the indoor swimming pool, one of the first built in the United States. A second-story balcony runs along three sides of the pool. The fourth side has an opera box, where musicians once routinely serenaded bathers. The pool is filled with natural spring water and is open 24 hours.

Bedford Springs was once famous for its seven springs, all of which still exist. The Iroquois, the Shawnee and the Tuscarora Indians shared the "medicine springs," using those with heavy deposits of sulfur to treat wounds, those with magnesium to treat stomach problems, and so forth. Although the tribes sometimes warred, they considered the springs so holy that the surrounding land was neutral territory.

An eighth spring was discovered as workers dug a foundation for the new 30,000-square-foot spa. Rather than cap it, resort planners captured the pure spring water for use in the spa.

In addition to the usual wraps, scrubs, baths and fitness programs, the Bedford Springs spa has a signature feature: Instead of arriving a few minutes before a spa treatment, guests are encouraged to come an hour early. You start your spa visit in a giant shower with multiple heads, and use soaps and shampoo developed from local products, such as honeysuckle and cucumber. Then you drop into a superheated whirlpool bath, leap quickly into a cold-water plunge and enter a steam room, and repeat as often as you wish: I did the three times advised. Prices are a bit higher than in a day spa but generally less than at the Greenbrier or Homestead: A 25-minute massage is $65; 80 minutes, $160, for example.

I started my first day at Bedford Springs at the outdoor pool and whirlpool, alternating between leisurely swims and rests in a cabana overlooking a golf course reminiscent of the links-style courses of Scotland.

The course, originally designed by Spencer Oldham in 1895, was one of America's first golf courses. Although it meant nothing to me, golf enthusiasts will apparently be impressed to know it was redesigned in 1923 by Donald Ross. As part of its recent renovation, wetlands were restored, and a creek that runs through the course was dredged to its original depth.

After a swim, I headed for dinner in the ultra-romantic 1796 Room, the fanciest of the resort's five dining areas. The rack of lamb was excellent, as it should be for $36.

Skipping dessert, I headed, with a bottle of wine, to the fire pit in the front of the resort. Even in late July, the cool night air was just right for sitting around a blazing fire. I was soon joined by a young local couple and a middle-aged couple from California. Before long we were laughing and trading stories like old friends and agreeing that the friendly atmosphere at the resort had increased the likelihood that strangers would feel comfortable gathering around a fire and getting to know one another.

As we chatted, a couple of hotel executives having a late-night meeting stopped by. I learned, among other things, that the resort is building cabinets to display some of the hotel registry books. In addition to the famous guests already mentioned, the hotel has hosted 10 American presidents. Buchanan was a frequent visitor, and one of his signatures is most interesting. The only bachelor president in U.S. history once signed the registry: "James Buchanan, and wife and nurse."

During the Civil War, numerous Union generals signed for their families to stay in the relative safety of the hotel before going off to battle at such places as Gettysburg and Antietam.

In the wee hours of the morning, I returned to my room, turned off the air conditioning and opened the screen door that led to a long, rambling porch lined with rocking chairs.

I felt a strange emotional connection to the place, hoping it would be around another couple of hundred years. It apparently inspires similar feelings for others. Defibaugh, for example.

I phoned him later to ask why he had spent so many years collecting pieces of Bedford Springs. He replied that he wondered that himself.

"I often used to think, Why am I collecting all these perishable things?" he said. "What will happen to them when I die? Yet I collected with such a sense of intensity and urgency that I felt there must be some purpose."

Then the hotel reopened. "I felt the Lord led me to have a small hand in this beautiful place coming back alive," Defibaugh said. "Seeing my collections displayed, I felt I had lived a purposeful life."

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