Built in 1901, the Inn at Buck Hill Falls was once the class of Poconos Mountain resorts. The thousand-acre retreat featured amenities such as an amphitheater, a 27-hole golf course, horseback riding, an indoor pool, swimming, and tennis. For decades the resort thrived, and would expand until eventually becoming a 400-room, 300,000 square-foot facility.
The end of the Buck Hill Inn began with a downturn in business from the late 1970s into the 1980s. In 1990, the owners closed it for good. Numerous attempts have tried, and failed, to restore the century-old resort. In the meantime Mother Nature, scrappers, and vandals have been slowly tearing down what remains of the Inn at Buck Hill.
cover photo courtesy Katherine Caprio
Buck Hill Falls Company
Buck Hill Falls is a private resort community in the Pocono Mountains, about one hundred miles north of Philadelphia, PA. The community is named for a nearby cascade, the beauty of which had caught the eye of Philadelphia Quaker Samuel Griscom by 1900. Griscom (pictured at right) was smitten with the 1,000 acres of Pocono woodlands he inherited, and thought it was suitable for a nature retreat.
However Griscom was advancing in years, and in the era before cars and highways, the trek from Philadelphia to the Poconos was difficult for older travelers. Griscom went about finding suitors for his development proposal.
[ Did you know: Samuel Griscom was the great-great nephew of Elizabeth Griscom, better known as Betsy Ross. ]
In 1900 Samuel Griscom engaged in negotiations with a New York-based developer, however the big city hotelier wanted to serve liquor on the developed property. Griscom, a devout Quaker and teetotaler, wanted a dry resort and elected to not proceed with the New York company.
Things changed in August of 1900 when Griscom was able to convince fellow Philadelphia Quakers Charles & Howard Jenkins to visit his property in the Poconos. It was an easy sell for Samuel; the acreage offered spectacular views and contained beautiful waterfalls.
In addition, the Pocono region was growing as a getaway destination for city dwellers. Other early hotels such as the Kittatinny Hotel, Water Gap House, and Delaware House, had already proved popular, collectively averaging 500,000 visitors annually.
Griscom and Jenkins negotiated terms and a deal was struck. On December 31st, 1900, the Buck Hill Falls Company (symbol: BUHF) was created and capitalized with $20,000. Charles F. Jenkins was named first president of the company, and would serve in the role until his death in 1951.
The Inn at Buck Hill Falls
Jenkins’ first major decision was to build the proposed inn on the shoulder of the mountain, where it could draw a breeze from three directions. The Buck Hill Falls Company hired Philadelphia architectural firm Bunting & Shrigley to design the hotel and general contractor Shiffer Brothers of Stroudsburg for construction. The inn’s landscaping was designed by Frederick Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park.
The first iteration of the hotel was small – comprising just 20 rooms with no private baths – and took construction crews less than a year to finish.
On Saturday, June 22nd, 1901, the Buck Hill Inn opened its doors for the first time. It lacked heat, and lighting was provided by kerosene lamps, but the Quakers appreciated the resort’s simplicity.
As was popular in the Poconos at the time, the Buck Hill Inn site plan was designed with a central inn surrounded by cottages. To accommodate for this the Buck Hill Falls Company purchased additional unimproved property at two dollars per acre.
Infrastructure was underway; lots were surveyed, roads paved.
Investors had the option of purchasing building lots at prices starting from $100. Initial interest seemed quiet, however within two years seventeen cottages had been constructed.
Over time its popularity grew; by 1915 Buck Hill Falls had more than 125 cottages. Today there are nearly 300.
The year-round resort offered winter activities such as sledding, skiing, toboggans, and Christmas celebrations.
Sled dog derbies against other resorts such as Skytop and Pocono Manor featured Alaskan huskies pitted against each other in competition. This, of course, was when they weren’t serving as rescue dogs on humanitarian missions.
Blue-ribbon trout streams offered fishing, and for those who preferred theater, either Buck Hill’s amphitheater or the nearby Pocono Playhouse usually offered entertainment. It was also common to see formal balls and dances at the Inn in Buck Hill Falls.
The second floor of the Inn contained three large dining rooms directed by a world-renowned chef. Less formal was the Bluestone Restaurant, a popular breakfast or relaxed lunch eatery.
Above the main entrance is a large sun deck. On the East porch (pictured below), a dozen rocking chairs offered guests a place to sit and read the newspaper in the mornings.
The Inn at Buck Hill Falls was indeed very popular during its heyday; Christmas reservations were booked over a year in advance.
Buck Hill Inn Events & Expansion Timeline
- 1900: Samuel Griscom searches for developer suitor, finds Jenkins
- 1901: The Inn at Buck Hill Falls opens.
- 1907: A nine-hole golf course was added.
- 1909: The first swimming pool was dedicated.
- 1913: Six grass tennis courts opened, along with the ski area.
- 1918: The Buck Hill Falls Company plants over 60,000 trees.
- 1921: The “Anniversary Gates” are dedicated at the entrance to Buck Hill Falls to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Inn.
- 1922: Donald Ross designs the Blue & White courses of what later becomes the 27-hole course and complex.
- 1923: The four-story Pennsylvania stone hotel was added, in the Mission Revival Style, and again designed by Bunting and Shrigley.
- 1930: The East wing is completed and the resort began to take its final shape. By this time the hotel had 270 rooms and featured the north porch, a huge covered stone structure with exceptional views of the surrounding Pocono Mountains.
- 1933: Lawn bowling established. Tournaments attracted celebrities such as Walt Disney. Buck Hill Falls would also later host the 1963, 1998, & 2001 U.S. Championships for lawn bowling.
- 1934: The ski area gets its first rope tow lift.
- 1935: the Buck Hill Inn hosted Rexford Tugwell, Stuart Taylor, and Eleanor Roosevelt as they held a conference on the future of housing and resettlement regarding the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration.
- 1936: Buck Hill Falls shareholders built the pool that stands today. It measures 165 feet long and 65 feet wide, has an attached 50-foot-wide wing with diving boards, and a retractable glass roof.
- 1958: The dining room at Buck Hill Inn begins serving liquor for the first time; within a few years a cocktail lounge was opened.
- 1961: The ski area gets its first seated chair lift.
- 1964: West wing added to hotel, however it was more modern in design and is not considered by many to be visually compatible with the “Mission Revival” style of the existing structure (pictured below).
Inn at Buck Hill Falls Through the Years
(in chronological order)
Decline Forces Change in Ownership
The financial outlook of the hotel operation began unraveling in the mid-1960s. Prices of air travel had become cheaper and more accessible to the masses. Cruise ship packages were becoming more popular.
By the 1970s the oil crisis added another headwind, as city motorists were less willing to take trips to the Poconos with the higher prices of fuel.
The settlement’s ski area, once a draw for Buck Hill Falls, now lacked the thrills of newer ski slopes with greater vertical drops and more modern lifts. By 1977 the Buck Hill Falls Company was struggling with the economics of owning and operating the Inn. The hotel was losing money, and maintenance costs were escalating.
In August of 1977 the board of directors decided to sell the inn to Walter Sabo, president and chief executive officer of the Buck Hill Falls Company. In exchange for the rights to the inn, dormitory, stables, ice skating rink, power house, maintenance building, and a number of cottages on 134 acres, Sabo agreed to pay $2.6 million and assume liabilities, which included $750,000 in outstanding debentures.
The Buck Hill Falls Company retained ownership of the remainder of the community, including the 4,500 acres of land, 21 miles of roads, 27-hole golf course, tennis courts, and water system and sewage treatment plant.
For a brief spell the Inn enjoyed a modicum of success under Sabo, namely through its hosting of business conferences. Unfortunately the mortgage on the Buck Hill Inn was tied to the prime interest rate. When Sabo purchased the Inn in 1977, rates were around 6%; three years later, rates skyrocketed past 20%. Meanwhile an energy crisis in 1979 resulted in soaring gas prices – and ultimately a gas freeze. This meant potential guests could no longer make the trek from New York or Philadelphia, which in turn left Buck Hill’s rooms empty.
[ View: 1985 Buck Hill Inn brochure (pdf format) ]
In 1981 Walter Sabo sold the Buck Hill Inn to Astrid and Jacob Keuler, who operated the Buck Hill Inn for nearly ten years. The Keulers didn’t have to endure an energy crisis or rising rates, but the resort was still facing other headwinds: A dire need of a capital injection for structural repairs and the growing stigma of Pocono Mountain resorts as places with shag carpet, coin-operated beds, and heart-shaped Jacuzzi tubs.
As a later Buck Hill Inn owner observed about the reputation of the Poconos: “It’s the butt of Seinfeld jokes.”
Guest numbers were dwindling, but the Keulers continued Sabo’s positioning of the resort as a convention center destination.
A 1980’s article by Great American Convention Centers highlights the Buck Hill Inn as having one of the “Ten Best” convention centers in the United States. The review was positive:
“The largest resort in the Poconos is self-sufficient, even having its own fire department. It also has 14 tennis courts, two golf courses and putting greens, an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, and an indoor skating rink almost as big as Madison Square Gardens’. Buck Hill Inn contains a riding school with 6,000 acres of bridle paths and footpaths, five miles of trout streams and a 200-foot waterfall: Buck Hill Falls. Its convention facilities vary from small rooms holding 20 to a separate conference center that accommodates 250, and an auditorium which seats 800.”
A November 1986 L.A. Times article mentions the “Corporate Kill” package at Buck Hill Falls, where guests paid $325 to pretend to be “multimillionaire stockholders in the middle of a very unfriendly corporate takeover.” Whomever discovered the takeover and solved the murder was the winner.
brochure written by Walter Sabo Jr., images courtesy Jonathan Haeber
While the Inn was experimenting with ideas to attract visitors, the now-unburdened Buck Hill Falls Company was looking to upgrade the remainder of its facilities. To do this, it needed to raise additional capital. In 1985 plans were laid for a five-year, multi-million dollar program which included doubling the number of houses. The dilution of the property provided the funding for renovating the sports facilities.
The company sold a portion of the land – but maintained an equity interest in any new development. Homeowners act as shareholders in the corporation; its activities are financed through annual dues collected from the shareholders. The corporation oversees the sports facilities, garbage collection, roads, utilities, water, and woodlands. In exchange for the dilution, Buck Hill Falls Company would see its golf and tennis clubhouses renovated as well as the construction of a new children’s camp building next to the 48-acre dry lake, which would be re-filled with water.
End of the Road
The writing might have been on the wall for decades, but few could have been prepared for the abrupt end of its operation. In a fall 2000 TV interview, then-owner of Buck Hill Inn Bill Kirkhuff revealed the previous owner (Jacob Keuler) had shut down the Inn at Buck Hill Falls quickly after his wife fell ill:
“MR. KEULER DROVE HER TO A LOCAL HOSPITAL, checked her into a psychiatric ward, and announced to the staff he was closing the hotel. All the guests checked out, and that was it. Beds were made, there were towels in the bathroom, bars of soap. It really appeared to be frozen in time.”
The four-hundred room Inn at Buck Hill Falls closed in 1990, ninety years after it had opened with just twenty rooms. Opinions on the genesis of its demise vary, but according to Monroe County State Representative Joseph Battisto (pictured), the hotel suffered from a lack of reinvestment by management.
Battisto pointed out that some other area properties – including Skytop and the four Caesars resorts – improved their facilities and managed to continue attracting customers.
Whatever the reason, the closing of the Buck Hill Falls Inn left dozens without jobs and damaged the region’s economy.
Over the next several years the Inn’s fate lay in purgatory as deed paperwork and tax liens were disputed. Eventually the hotel came under ownership of Buck Hill Falls Realty Corporation, an entity owned by Scranton-based businessman Lou DeNaples.
Buck Hill Falls Inn had been closed for nearly eight years when Buck Hill Falls (BHF) Landlords announced in 1998 it had purchased the mortgage on the hotel. The Atlantic City, New Jersey-based company acquired the mortgage for reportedly less than $1 million dollars from DeNaples’ BHF Realty Corporation.
BHF Landlords was led by Bill Kirkhuff, who revealed plans to spend $28 million redeveloping the hotel. In December Kirkhuff said there were no deadlines in place, however by February of 1999 he was more optimistic and announced the doors were scheduled to re-open by the summer of 2000 under a new name: The Buck Hill Falls Conference Resort.
He also expected to spend $600,000 on a new roof and to replace around 756 windows… at a cost of $480,000.
Initially, progress appeared to be underway when scaffolding was erected around and the hotel held auctions for its furniture. But by April of the following year the scaffolding had come back down after the project stalled due to lack of funding. It was the fourth time financiers had backed out of a deal with Kirkhuff’s group.
BHF Landlords’ troubles were not limited to financing woes, although an April 2000 estimate ratcheting remodel costs up to $30 million didn’t help matters. When Bill Kirkhuff tried to foreclose on the property to obtain the deed, issues with the paperwork and a missing $5,000 deposit also prevented BHF from securing the deed.
photo set courtesy Jonathan Haeber
Three years later a group of creditors tried to force Buck Hill Inn into involuntary bankruptcy. The 2003 claim was made by three creditors — Parker Oil Co., the law firm of Newman, Williams, Corveleyn, Wolfe and Fareri, and the accounting firm of Weseloh & Co. — who claimed they were owed a total of $50,706.
“For all intents and purposes, whoever holds the mortgage [to Buck Hill Inn] controls the property.”
– Bill Kirkhuff
Buck Hill’s East Room: 1950s and today
Perhaps the only blemish on the résumé of the Inn at Buck Hill Falls was its use by MTV for a television show episode in 2000. During the fall of that year, the television network used the hotel – by this time abandoned for ten years – for an episode of “Fear” (aired in 2001; season 1, episode 6, watch).
The show sends a group of teenagers into a suspected haunted property without help or professional camera crews to look for paranormal activity. MTV had permission to use the property, but the network took liberties with reporting the Inn’s history and made some questionable claims of which there have been little evidence (one urban legend claims the hotel was the site of suicides and 73 murders).
The tales recounted on MTV were haunting and thrilling – but most were news to the long-time Buck Hill Falls residents, who knew of the Inn as a happy and peaceful place during its heyday. Sometimes Interesting’s independent investigation into regional police affidavits and newspaper articles yielded no record of murders or suicides at the Inn.
Owner Bill Kirkhuff was not entirely pleased with the MTV portrayal.
“I don’t think MTV’s intention was ever to accurately portray the building’s history. There are rumors and legends about the building, just like there is about any old building, but not nearly to the level that MTV aired.”
However he was pragmatic in his assessment:
“I think the MTV producers got a little frustrated when they were trying to tape a show called ‘Fear’ and there wasn’t any to be had. That’s why they may have gone to such great lengths to embellish.”
Is the Inn at Buck Hill Falls haunted? “It all depends on what your mindset is,” said Kirkhuff. “If you believe in ghosts, you may think it’s haunted.”
Regardless, Kirkhuff believes the real legacy of the inn is that of “nostalgia and sentimentality.”
Fires & Trespassers
On July 7th, 2003, the Buck Hill Inn was almost lost in a fire. That evening, three fires were started around the premises, according to a police affidavit. The first fire was started in the library with books piled on top of each other. The second fire was started in nearby room using cardboard boxes.
The third fire was started using foam rubber in the recreation hall building by the Annex – the building which once housed Buck Hill employees and servants to the guests.
It was the third fire which was discovered first, as the recreation hall went up in flames quickly. According to the Barrett Township Fire Chief, the heat was such that the roof of the next-door Annex ignited, starting what would be the fourth fire.
The fires destroyed the five-story field stone Annex and one-story wooden recreation hall, leaving remnants of some stone walls and a pair of chimneys. Deemed unsafe, the remains had to come down. Three men were arrested and charged with starting the fires.
By 2006 trespassing had become a rampant problem. Since the MTV episode in 2001, between 50 and 100 trespassers have been apprehended each year. Authorities say it usually peaks during Halloween, and cite how as many as fifteen people were arrested one year.
Police and property owners consider it a serious problem, and the penalties reflect this, so don’t do it:
Trespassers receive 90 days in jail or a $300 fine.
Some trespassers are easier to catch than others. In April of 2011 one violator bragged on Facebook and posted photos of items she had taken from the hotel. Fortunately for authorities, she was kind enough to post the time and date she would return to take more things.
She was quickly apprehended.
New Ownership & Plans
In January of 2005 an investment group known as Falls Road Funding LLC (FRF) announced the purchase of the inn’s mortgage from Kirkhuff’s group for an undisclosed amount. FRF was composed of John Miller, a magazine publisher, Vince Keegan, a real estate lawyer, and Chuck Rusbusan, a financial executive.
According to Miller, the new group would hold a clear title to the property after foreclosure – which he expected in January of 2006. “We’re putting together a marketing package for that and we’re really going to move [quickly].”
FRF had intentions of re-selling the property to a developer, however the real estate market collapse and financial crisis between 2007 and ‘08 forced a change of plans. In the years since, the lending climate has continued to prevent FRF from finding a developer with financing.
However the group was successful in getting financial assistance from the state after requesting Local Share Account (LSA) funds, a Pennsylvania grant used for economic development, community development, and public interest projects in Monroe County.
In May of 2011 Pennsylvania State senator John Blake announced $90k in appropriated LSA funds for a proposed event center and boutique-style hotel at the Buck Hill Inn. A second LSA grant of $100k was requested in 2012 for “renovation costs associated with the proposed event center at historic Buck Hill Inn.”
The difficulty in securing financing has resulted in another change of plans for the Inn’s owners. A new plan included a 50-to-80-room boutique hotel that would use only the standalone south building of the property. The first phase of the project is expected to cost $9 million; the second phase would be to demolish part of the inn while salvaging as much as possible.
According to owner Vince Keegan, “When you’re talking about the old, historic building, you’re talking about maybe a third of it or hopefully half that can be saved. The roof has been leaking for 20 years… It’s going to take a while.”
photo set courtesy Jonathan Haeber
Plans were temporarily halted in September of 2014, when a police manhunt for FBI most-wanted fugitive Eric Frein resulted in authorities sealing off the Buck Hill Inn and combing the building in search of their vigilante.
Frein was wanted for the killing of a Pennsylvania State Trooper and wounding of another. According to authorities, Frein had an interest in the Buck Hill Inn and spent time in the hotel in the years before the attack.
A month after the FBI raid, two companies announced they would accept sealed bids for the Inn at Buck Hill Falls. Maryland-based Hollywood Real Estate Services LLC, and Washington, D.C.-based Summit Commercial Real Estate LLC announced in December of 2014 they would assist in a divestiture of the property.
The companies have submitted a commercial real estate listing:
Hotel / Motel For Sale. Price: Not Disclosed. No. Rooms: 400. Building Size: 400,000 SF. Property Type: Hotel & Motel. Property Sub-type: Full Service. Property Use Type: Vacant/Owner-User. Lot Size: 138 AC. Listing ID: 18998548.
“Excellent Hospitality and/or Residential Re-Development Opportunity, located in Monroe County, PA. Site is approximately 90 -100 miles from New York City and Philadelphia, PA. Site includes The Historic Buck Hill Inn (Approximately 450 Rooms, 27 Hole Golf Course & adjacent to 5000 acres of woodlands). Master Plan Approved Community. Now Accepting Bids! (Bid on entire parcel or portions).
Great Opportunity for International Investors, Health Care Systems, Senior Living, National Builders & Equestrian & Fly-In Based Communities.”
There is little official recognition for the inn at 35 Falls Drive in Buck Hill Falls, PA. In addition to investors’ efforts, it has been listed as a threatened property by Pennsylvania Preservation, a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of historic places in the state.
The Buck Hill Falls Company no longer has an economic interest in the Buck Hill Inn, but the company still manages more than 4,500 acres of rolling Pocono hills.
Boosters still see the potential of a vacation resort located just 90 minutes from New York City (and slightly more from Philadelphia). They point out more than 30 million people live within two hours of Buck Hill Falls.
If anyone’s interested, FRF is still the owner and they are seeking investors for a redevelopment effort.
Update 09/07/2016: S-I reader Steve Smith tells us the hotel is currently cordoned off and undergoing preparations for demolition.
Watch: Drone footage shows magnificence of hotel and beauty of surrounding landscape (courtesy Scott Krycia).
For more information, contact The Buck Hill Falls Company at their administrative office: P.O. Box 426, Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania 18323, 570-595-7511
A special thanks to the Buck Hill Falls Company, BuckHillFalls.org, Falls Road Funding LLC, Jonathan Haeber, and the Pocono Record for their assistance, information, and photos provided for this post.