History of the Penn Wells Hotel
The Historic Penn Wells Hotel became a member of the Historic Hotels of America in 2017 and was recognized as a nominee for New Member of the Year. To be nominated and selected for membership into this prestigious program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a hotel must be at least 50 years old; have been designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; and be recognized as having historic significance. For more information, please visit HistoricHotels.org. Historic Hotels of America is constituted of nearly 300 U.S. hotels, all of which, like the Penn Wells, have been judged to have faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place, and architectural integrity.
Benjamin Wister Morris, an agent of the Pine Creek Land Company, first came to Tioga County, Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia in 1805 with his wife, Mary Wells Morris, and their two children, Samuel and Rebecca. When they constructed their simple log cabin home, it was the only dwelling in what is now the borough of Wellsboro. Just one year later, with the Morrises still the only family living in the area, Wellsboro—apparently named for Benjamin’s wife—was designated as the county seat, through the agency of the Pine Creek Land Company.
Wellsboro’s location at the intersection of the Morris State Road (Rt. 287) and the East and West State Road (Rt. 6) made it a prime thoroughfare even in the early 1800s, and so Wellsboro’s first tavern was built in 1816 on the site of the present Penn Wells Hotel when Alpheus Cheney, the first sheriff of Tioga County, purchased the land from Samuel Morris. Since the construction of that first tavern, the site has always been occupied by a tavern, inn, or hotel.
In 1869, three years after a fire destroyed the original building—which had gone through many name changes and owners—A. P. Cone erected a four-story brick hotel on the site—the same basic structure that you see today. J.S. Coles purchased the Hotel 1885 and named it the Coles House. Eleven years later Coles’ brother, William Riley Coles, took over the business when J.S. died. William resurrected the struggling Hotel with major renovations, including re-facing the original brick.
On a subzero March morning in 1906, a fire destroyed the fourth story of the building. No one was hurt, however, and once the damaged fourth story was removed business resumed as normal. William Coles ran the Hotel until his death, and in 1925 a group of local residents bought the property and formed the Wellsboro Hotel Company. After much debate over whether the historic building should be refurbished or torn down and replaced with a modern facility, the former won out and the Hotel was closed for extensive remodeling. They rebuilt the fourth floor and added a sprinkler system to protect the Hotel from future fires. The Hotel reopened the next year as the Penn-Wells Hotel.
1920s and 1930s
The Hotel flourished throughout the rest of the 1920s and 30s, even in the face of the Great Depression. A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the gem of the Roosevelt Highway,” and the Penn Wells was known as one of the classiest hotels with the best service and amenities in Pennsylvania. It became a destination, as opposed to a stopping point on the way through untamed northern Pennsylvania. A regular bus service ran from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria to the Hotel in the late 20s, bringing Groucho Marx to stay at the Hotel in 1928. Buses made special trips from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and even the B&O Railroad ran a special excursion from Pittsburgh. The Penn Wells was also a popular stop along the Greyhound bus route from New York to Chicago.
Adding to the Hotel’s success, the Arcadia Theatre, which was built in 1921, showed its first “talkie” in 1929, making Wellsboro the first small town north of the Mason-Dixon Line to show talking pictures. The Theatre would later hit a major milestone in 1949, when it hosted the world premiere of Top O’ the Morning starring Bing Crosby.
In 1931, in the midst of the area’s first natural gas boom, the Penn Wells built the “new” section of the Hotel, which added 18 additional rooms (those ending in 29-34) and enlarged the dining room to accommodate the influx of people to the area.
During WWII the Hotel served as a community gathering place, hosting Saturday evening Hoedowns, concerts, and various dinner events and meetings. Corning Glass works held their annual holiday party in 1946 and presented the Hotel with the American flag constructed of 1,438 glass Christmas ornaments that now hangs in the Hotel’s lobby. One distinguished guest of this era was Joan Crawford, who stayed at the Hotel in 1943, when she came to see the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. The Penn Wells also took on patriotic duties, housing the Ladies Room, where local women sewed clothes for the needy, and an observation post on the roof, built for detecting enemy aircraft.