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Mount Airy Lodge: The Last Resort

Thanks to relentless television ads, many people know Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge as if “beautiful” were part of its name. The ads were a bit corny, but they successfully evoked images of old-timey postwar resort vacations, and brought crowds from New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania to the Poconos, the honeymoon capital of the east coast, and in moments of advertising hyperbole, of the whole world. If you provided the marriage license, they’d provide the preacher, a beautiful mountain setting for your wedding, and honeymoon suites with red heart-shaped bathtubs.

But the advertising campaign of the 1970s and 80s does nothing to prepare you for the Mount Airy Lodge in this century—a closed-down, boarded-up, and massive ruin left to leak, warp, and crumble in the mountain elements. The complex of huge resort buildings, cabins, and secluded suites for honeymooners, their indoor and outdoor pools, man-made lakes with white sand beaches, entered a steady decline in the last decade of the twentieth century. The resort’s majority owner, Emil Wagner, declined with it. The two were so closely associated that when the resort went bust in 1999, its 77-year old owner died with it.

Wagner’s friend Bob Uguccioni summed up the symbiotic relationship between Wagner and his resort in various interviews following Wagner’s suicide.

“He was married to Mount Airy,” Uguccioni told reporters, “Mount Airy was his family, and he saw it was about to be taken away from him. I think the pressure of that was too much.”

In his native Czechoslovakia, Wagner had been a hotel owner since he was 17, so when his aunt and uncle, Suzanne and John Martens, sponsored him to immigrate to the United States, it was inevitable he would work for them at their place, the Mount Airy House. He and the resort both grew in stature. Wagner became a 56-percent owner, and the Lodge turned into the largest employer in the region. In the early 1960s, Wagner brought planeloads of immigrants from Communist countries to work in the Mount Airy Lodge, a social, political, and marketing coup that eventually earned him the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Wagner was something of a showman and marketing wizard, if not altogether an honest one. His mantra was “Use big words, exaggerate.” If people called to ask about the conditions during winter, reservation clerks were encouraged to mention snow, even if it was 50 degrees outside. Instead of talking about gourmet food, reservation clerks were under instructions to use fancy terms like “Epicurean delights.” This grandiose bluster fit the image of a classic, statue-laden luxury resort to a tee, and during the 1950s and 1960s, that’s exactly what Mount Airy’s visitors got. The Lodge captured a huge following of guests from the tri-state area who paid their money and got all the amenities in the single fee—food, horse riding, skiing, later snowmobiling, and all kinds of other recreation. The only extras were greens fees for the golf course, drinks, and souvenirs.

By the 1970s, the enormous holdings on the side of Mount Pocono weren’t enough, and the company acquired the neighboring properties, Stricklands Inn and the Pocono Gardens Inn. And for the following ten years or so, the resort was able to cruise on its reputation. But all the while, its finances were getting more and more parlous. The Lodge was grossing tens of millions of dollars annually, but the growth of Atlantic City’s casinos and cheap travel to Caribbean island paradises siphoned off a lot of the area’s business. Wagner sank money into expansion, a move that soon proved to be throwing good money after bad. With cash problems growing, basic maintenance began to suffer.

Throughout the 1990s, the place was in a steady decline. Complaints about dirt in the rooms, blocked

plumbing, and splintered wood on the balconies became more common. Linen and furnishings steadily became dirty. Bugs were found crawling in the carpets, and the pool water was full of leaves and dead insects. The quality of the food declined steeply. Seasonal employees jumped ship to the newer Caesars resorts, and were happy to joke that the “Epicurean delights” at the Lodge’s kitchens now included powdered eggs and out-of-date dairy goods. In short, the place was becoming positively squalid.

The bills weren’t getting paid either. By 1999, the company owed $46 million in unsecured debts to 400 creditors, and the financial vultures were circling. It was clear that Wagner would lose control of the resort, and after sixty years in the hotel business, it was a fate he could not face. He shot himself, leaving his stake in the morass to one of his managers and close friends, Hana Danko. Shortly after his funeral, the resort filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Mount Airy Lodge, Stricklands, and Pocono Gardens were sold at sheriff’s sale. Shortly after that, they closed down.

In March 2005, Weird Pennsylvania and several hundred others attended a massive auction of all the moveable goods in the resort’s health center. Between the mildewed gym and the wavy-floored basketball court, hundreds of televisions, mini-fridges, boxes of gift-store souvenirs, and concrete statutes went at prices as low as a couple of dollars. The piles of heart-shaped tubs, still fringed with white caulk from where they had been ripped out of their settings, went for around $300 apiece, with their fixtures thrown in. Here and there, television cameras and newspaper reporters pointed their microphones at rather sad-looking individuals who had once played a major part in the resort. Carl Martens, a former manager of the resort, was visibly moved. “We had a real reputation and tradition as the best,” we heard him say, “It’s sad to see the end of an era.” One VIP attendee we saw strolling to the head of the line as the bidding began later hissed her disapproval at a lowball bid for the contents of singer Englebert Humperdinck’s suite. “It cost fifteen thousand to make,” she whispered in protest. And she should know. She was the suite’s designer, Marcella Ravell.

Now that the place has been strip-mined for its immediate valuables, its future is up in the air. Some believe that Pennsylvania will allow slot-machine betting in the area, and hope that the Lodge will once again attract out-of-town visitors and their dollars. For now, the only viable part of the business is the golf course. And as you drive your golf cart around the course during the summer in the shadow of the unused ski lift, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the greens. They keep wandering to this colossal wreck of a resort. From a distance, in its own way, it’s still a beautiful sight.

Not So Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge
In August of 1998, we spent part of our honeymoon at the not-so-beautiful Mount Airy Lodge. I say “part of our honeymoon” because after four days, we left and checked into Caesars Poconos Resorts because we were so upset. In fact, my wife was in tears.

Mount Airy Lodge’s advertisements billed it as a luxury resort that catered to honeymooners. The pictures on TV and in magazines were beautiful. Unfortunately they must have been from 15 years ago. Our room was slightly larger than an average hotel room, with a queen size bed, a loveseat, fireplace, TV, hot tub, bathroom and a sliding door that went to an outdoor deck. The deck was made of wood with a large wooden fence surrounding it for privacy. On the surface this all sounds fine, but the loveseat looked as it was about 20 years old, and had not been cleaned in 10 years. The bed was uncomfortable and the sheets were not clean. The TV didn’t work at all. The hot tub didn’t work properly, some of the lights didn’t work, and getting hot water was a feat in itself. The outdoor deck was filled with leaves and the wood was splitting, not somewhere you would even consider walking barefoot. It was really disgusting.

I called the front desk to complain about the room and ask if they could send someone to clean it up and fix the things that were broken. Six hours after we called, at 9:30pm, on our first night together as man and wife, the knock at the door came. They kept knocking, yelling “Housekeeping! We know you’re in there, open the door.” My wife scurried into the bathroom and I answered the door. I explained it was the first night of our honeymoon and it was a bad time, that’s why we had the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. They threatened that if they didn’t fix it now, they wouldn’t ever be back. They were there for 15 minutes, till I threw them out. My wife was quite upset. I spoke with the hotel manager, and his attitude was basically “tough.” I asked for a refund and he refused, and when I said I would file a complaint, he stated that they were already being sued by guests, and had several complaints with the Better Business Bureau, so he didn’t care what I did.  –Steve Cruz

Hot Stuff

Although the Mount Airy Lodge is boarded up, some enterprising explorers have ripped down a couple of the plywood boards covering the doors to get inside. The rooms are the same as they were when the resort closed—dirty, smelly, and looking like the set of a cheesy 1970s porn movie. The fake brass trim and the red plastic hot tubs with their corner mirrors paint the picture pretty well.  –Apstyling

Well, it Was Beautiful

We stayed at Mount Airy Lodge one summer in the early 1990s, and it wasn’t bad at all.  The food was good and the place was enormous, with plenty to do, with everything paid for in the hundred-some dollars a night we paid. The nightclub was extra, but that was okay.  We had a huge room away from the main building, but it wasn’t hard to get to the center of things for meals. I’m kind of sad it’s closed. We had a great time there. –Alan Walker

Hail, Caesar

I worked at Mount Airy Lodge in the 1990s, and at first it was okay. The club had a lot of famous performers and visitors seemed to enjoy themselves. But when the complaints started coming in regularly, it was time to get out. It was hard to put on a smile for the guests at check in when you knew the bed linen wasn’t being cleaned, the kitchens served up prison food, and the pool had things crawling in it. The Caesars Pocono Palace is a much better place to work (and stay). –Moved On

Weird Pennsylvania

 

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