Of dust and dreams

In the basement crawlspace that is now the Springhouse Tavern, the contractor advised against displacing any of the original dirt behind the foundation, for fear of bringing the house down on itself.

“We didn’t touch it,” Jackie said. “I guess it worked, because we’ve never had a problem.”

I’ll admit it. When Jackie White told me that story about restoring the Dobbin House and its stone-walled basement tavern, I glanced up to make sure the ceiling was holding over my head.

Taverns with misbehaving histories never had it easy. Most were not coddled with regular maintenance over the decades and centuries. Most have been neglected, mistreated, and misbegotten.

But sagging beams and craggy walls can’t conceal their beauty – at least, not to those who are not too blind to see. Wrap them in love, and they revive like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Fever-dreaming restaurateurs squint through the dust and cobwebs, and they see happy patrons enjoying food and drink in one-of-a-kind atmospheres.

The Dobbin House Tavern, Gettysburg, celebrated its 42nd anniversary on May 30, 2019. Jackie White first walked into a wreck, but she fell in love. Stone walls. Milky-yellow tones hidden under centuries of paint layers. Intact fireplaces. Rough-hewn plank floors.

The story repeats at so many other places. McCoole’s at the Historic Red Lion Inn in Quakertown. The Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford. The Wooden Keg Tavern, St. Clair. Two Rivers Brewing Company, Easton. All were wheezing before getting restoration CPR. The Tavern at the Sun Inn, Bethlehem, barely escaped a date with the wrecking ball.

The 11 months that went into restoring the Dobbin House must have seemed like an eternity to Jackie, but if I’m doing the math right (okay, I’m probably not, but indulge my reporter math), that’s a 45-times return on investment in months.

The ROI from historic preservation turns into real dollars and jobs – topping jobs and income created by investments in fields like food processing, natural gas, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals, Preservation Pennsylvania says in an April 2019 report.

Let’s hear it for historic preservation! Going toe to toe in economic impact with Big Pharma and the shale boom? Not too shabby. Plus, in my travels to talk about “Well-Behaved Taverns Seldom Make History,” I’ve never heard anyone relate a happy memory about their warfarin. People approach me to share stories about their real-life connections to these places – about the great-great-great uncle held prisoner at the Sun Inn, or the grandson who suddenly seemed overly snuggly, finally admitting that the Dobbin House’s ghost stories had him a little spooked.

Bring a tumbledown wreck back to life, and a cherished institution is born, or reborn. All these misbehaving taverns stand as testament to the endurance of original craftsmanship and the power of preservation to transform history from vague concept into the tangible experiences we crave.

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