A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Ribbon-cutting ceremony at Hotel Lykens on July 12, 2017, after its rehabilitation into a housing unit.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony at Hotel Lykens on July 12, 2017, after its rehabilitation into a housing unit.
Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office/Photo by David Maher

For many years, anthracite coal mining was the main source of livelihood for the residents of Lykens, a borough in northern Dauphin County. By the early 1920s, the industry was in decline, causing the community’s population and economy to waver. Meanwhile across the country, as automobile ownership was increasing, community leaders noticed that hotels and other services associated with travel were becoming lucrative, and they sought means to attract additional business from the roads.

Community hotels were often the vision of civic-minded groups. Aimed at the growing middle class, these facilities offered high-quality and sophisticated amenities such as dining rooms, bars, banks, shops and convenient parking. Envisioning a community hotel was only the first step for Lykens. Paying for a hotel’s design, construction and management would require a unique solution.

The Hockenbury System Inc. of Harrisburg, Dauphin County, founded in 1911 by Edson Hockenbury, enabled a community-based form of project financing that helped establish hospitals, YMCAs and other institutions all over the country. By the mid-1920s Hockenbury had observed the growing trend of hotel development in conjunction with the popularity of the automobile. A 1927 Hockenbury advertisement proclaimed, “No city does justice to itself unless it builds an exceptionally attractive hotel.” Once engaged, Hockenbury first conducted a feasibility study for its client that determined the most appropriate size, cost, uses and location for a hotel. Then it organized and managed a fundraising drive that sold stock in the new hotel to the community. Small armies of volunteers would sell the stocks door to door. Teams received prizes for selling the most stocks. The effort not only built capital to finance the hotel’s development but also created community excitement and personal investment in the hotel’s long-term success. After only two weeks of excited fundraising, the Lykens effort met its goal by raising $151,300.

When the modest, four-story Hotel Lykens opened in July 1926, the accomplishment was celebrated with a local parade and a lavish banquet attended by more than 300 guests. The opening of the community hotel marked a major milestone for the citizens of the small former mining town. It was “The Pride of the Valley,” a promotional brochure proclaimed. “The coming of this distinctive hotel does not merely mean a place for the housing of our guests . . . it means that this entire community will have a real civic, social, and commercial center.”

Hotel Lykens was designed in the era’s popular Colonial Revival style and featured 50 guest rooms (many with private bathrooms), a formal dining room, a mezzanine lounge, a barber shop, a bar, a billiard room and a coffee shop. It was prominently located at a major intersection and was completely fireproof, with each room having been lined with gypsum block.

Advertisements aimed to attract automobile tourists from the surrounding region by touting the “beautiful scenery” and the “all improved roads” along the route. The hotel, however, also became a local destination, as many community groups and organizations used the spaces within it to hold banquets, weddings, rallies, funerals and even Dauphin County commissioner meetings.

In the early 1930s Lykens’ last remaining coal mine shut down, weakening the economy and beginning a slow decline in population. Although the hotel survived the Great Depression, it was converted into a boardinghouse by midcentury. In 1972 much of the borough’s Main Street was ravaged by Hurricane Agnes, but the building survived. It finally closed in the 1990s and then sat vacant for years while it began to deteriorate, creating a public eyesore. Demolition of the former community anchor seemed inevitable.

In 2016 the hotel and the neighboring Israel Building were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Both buildings were rescued by a collaboration of state and local organizations and were redeveloped into a 28-unit rental community. Working with the State Historic Preservation Office, developers received federal Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credits for the project. At the 2017 ribbon cutting, a local leader stated, “These historic properties offer affordable housing serving our current and future residents” and “are again open for business with a new lease on life.”

 

Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry Armory, Philadelphia; Memorial Presbyterian Church, Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County; and Twin Bridges Rural Historic District, Chester County.

 

David Maher is a historic preservation specialist who coordinates the National Register Program for the central part of the state at PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.