The Herdic Hotel and its many reincarnations

CARA MORNINGSTAR/Sun-Gazette The front entrance to Park Place as it is in present day at 800 W. Fourth St. in Williamsport.

It was built during the Civil War as a grand railroad hotel capable of housing 700 guests in its four stories and was part of lumber baron Peter Herdic’s scheme to stimulate growth in a section of the city that was still developing and where he had considerable land holdings.

The Herdic Hotel, today known as Park Place, at the time was considered one of the finest hotels on the East Coast, with the Pennsylavania Railroad Depot on one side and a park with six deer on the other.

Park Place at 800 W. Fourth St. is situated on five acres of land in the heart of the city’s historic district. No longer a hotel, it has been called the “flagship of the historic district” and continues to attract people for events there, from wedding receptions and anniversary celebrations to cultural events and exhibitions.

“Williamsport has no institution of which she has more reason to feel proud, or which will give her more enviable reputation abroad, than the Park Hotel (formerly the Herdic House Hotel), conducted by Mr. Donald McDonald, whose experience and thorough knowledge of the business in all its minutest details make him peculiarly competent for the management of such a house,” said a June 13, 1879, story in the Gazette.

The Gazette and Bulletin reported the erection of the hotel began in July 1864, and it was completed and formally opened Aug. 20, 1865. Commissioned by Herdic, it was built by architect Eber Culver, who designed many of the city’s historic buildings of that era.

“It started as a railroad hotel. That was the whole purpose of it,” said Scott Sagar, curator of collections for the Lycoming County Historical Society. “Peter Herdic developed this whole part of town because the original part of town was what’s now downtown. He was trying to encourage development in this end, and all the lumber barons were building their houses here.

“He encouraged the railroad company to lay their tracks through there and, as part of that incentive, he built a hotel. It was during the Civil War,” Sagar said. “It was pretty ridiculous that he could build this massive hotel while there was a war going on.”

Sagar said it originally was built as a four-story hotel.

“(Herdic) built several fine houses on Fourth Street and close to the station, the Herdic House, now the Park Hotel,” wrote John F. Meginness in his 1892 “History of Lycoming County.”

“Blocks of buildings sprung up like magic. Street railways, paving jobs, political jobs, manufacturers, newspapers, gas companies, water works, banks and stores grew up at once. Everywhere he was the busy, the mysterious, the energetic, the wonderful Peter Herdic.”

Though it was Herdic’s project, he lost the property just a few years later during the national financial “panic” of 1878, when Herdic filed for bankruptcy. The hotel was sold at auction for $1,200 — a far cry from the estimated cost to build it of $225,000, according to Preservation Williamsport’s website.

The new owner was R.J.C. Walker, the son-in-law of William Weightman, Herdic’s largest creditor. Walker was married to Anne Weightman Walker, at the time thought to be the wealthiest woman in America.

A booklet on the Park Place Hotel for its 140th anniversary, by Rebecca C. McKeirnan and Anthony H. Visco Jr., said many transitions happened between 1879 and 1939. McKeirnan, daughter of Visco, wrote the booklet compiled with Visco’s historical information and research.

“The hotel went through many transitions during this time: a name change and frequent renovations and updates by new owners, but the Herdic House Hotel, now the Park Hotel, was still the center of most social activities and known worldwide as a first-class hotel and resort — ‘a garden of Eden,’ “ McKeirnan wrote. The Walkers intended to keep it as a social hub.

“The hotel had a widespread reputation for providing some of the finest dining and culinary experiences,” McKeirnan said.

But that was not to be its only purpose. In 1930, the hotel was purchased by William Budd Stuart, who started the transition into a retirement home for elderly women in 1937. He did that as a memorial to his mother, Laura Van Ness Stuart.

Stuart had an extensive collection of 19th century furniture and fine art of the old masters, some of whose paintings only are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris, according to McKeirnan.

“His collection consisted of 124 pieces. It included a large, beautiful painting of ‘Sheep in a Storm’ by August F. A. Schenck, as well as two large still-life paintings by A. Rosen, a Williamsport native,” she said. “His collection of paintings adorned the walls throughout the Park Home, lending it an additional air of refinement.”

In January 1956, 65 of the paintings were placed for sale due to a lack of display space. One was reportedly worth $35,000 at the time, according to a report about the art sale in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

The home reported “a lively response” from area art patrons, the newspaper reported.

In 1993, the Park Home board wanted to modernize the facility by demolishing the original structure and replacing it with a new building and facade that would fit in with the city’s historic district. That desire set off a years-long battle that went all the way to the state’s highest court, according to Preservation Williamsport.

“While opinions were varied, the overwhelming attitude within the city’s preservation community was that the integrity of the historic district was in jeopardy should this be allowed,” according to Preservation Williamsport’s website. “It was during this time of legal battles to ‘demolish vs. preserve’ the building that Dr. Randall Hipple dubbed the building, ‘The Flagship of the Historic District.’ This battle went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and set the standard for preservation in Pennsylvania.”

By the late 1990s, the building that was the Park Home was vacant.

“The Park Home, after several attempts by the Park Home board to have it demolished, remained vacant,” McKeirnan wrote in the booklet. “The building that had endured so much was now facing an uncertain future and was eventually placed on the list of the top 10 endangered historic structures by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.”

Three businessmen purchased the property in 2000. Allen Ertel, William Brown and Anthony H. Visco Jr. became the new owners.

Much of the interior had changed in the conversion to become a retirement facility.

“Very few interior features remained since most of the historic pieces had been sold or updated when the conversion from hotel to home for the elderly took place,” McKeirnan wrote. “But there are beautiful pieces that do remain, such as a few room fireplaces, the original black and white marble tile in the first-floor main lobby and hallway, the main lobby monumental stairway, interior lobby columns, the turn-of-the-century metal ceiling with matching cornices and center medallion tin ceiling.”

Today, Brown owns the property along with Catherine Ertel, Allen Ertel’s wife. Visco, one of the previous owners, said he is still very attached to the building.

“To me, there’s a number of historic structures in this community. I think the leader of that is the Herdic House Hotel, now Park Place,” he said. “I had a lot of respect for the building, and it deserved better than what it was receiving. To have it demolished would have been a major mistake.”

These days, Visco said the building is used mostly for office space.

“It’s professional offices. There’s accounting firms in there. There used to be a physician’s office there, but it isn’t there anymore,” he said. “There’s other types of general businesses, insurance companies and the like are in there. It’s offices.”

He said that it’s also an ideal location for special events.

“They allow various events in the space,” he said. “The Williamsport Civic Chorus, high school reunions, high school proms, weddings … We’ve had engagement parties, a number of organizations that have meetings there, it’s part of the Toy Train Expo during Christmas every year … many events.”

Visco said he used to give tours himself and talk about the renovations.

“I would say that this building now is as modern as any modern-day office building as far as electric, heating, air conditioning, internet and you name it,” he said. “It just happens to be in a new body; it’s got all new guts.”

In May 2005, Park Place received the state Historic Preservation Award from Preservation Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the restoration of the facility.