The black SUV eases down Route 174 in Monroe Township, heading east. The driver passes the first entrance to Allenberry Resort and turns right at the second, only to come to a complete stop.
He’s going the wrong way on the one-way road.
Up until recently, this was the proper entrance to the storied facility. But the new owners decided it made more sense to reverse directions. Now you enter from the road that’s farther west and exit farther east, bringing people more directly to the parking and main buildings at the resort.
That reversal of direction is emblematic, and it’s hardly the only change that’s happened at Allenberry over the past 13 months. Since the property was sold in July 2016 to a group of local investors, it’s undergone a metamorphosis worthy of a Kafka short story.
The resort has been updated, modernized, bulldozed, replanted, repainted, overhauled and, in a few small areas, preserved.
Work continues to be done, but that’s mostly second-phase stuff. With phase one all but finished, Allenberry is gearing up for a grand reopening at the end of this month or in early September.
The new owners, including Mechanicsburg businessman Mike Kennedy, have been guided by a vision of preserving the historical significance of the buildings while improving their interior and amenities.
“We already have the setting, the location and the geography. We knew if we could bring out the best of what the buildings could be, we would have a real winner,” said Kennedy as he sat on the back terrace of the Barn restaurant at Allenberry, overlooking the Yellow Breeches.
“We didn’t really understand it or completely envision what it would look like when we were done, but we knew it would encompass the view (of the Yellow Breeches). I think we’ve done pretty well,” he said, gesturing to the nearby creek.
So what has been done to the property, and what does it take to pull off such a drastic overhaul?
Well, firstly, it takes a lot of money. Kennedy declines to put a number on it (“we haven’t shared that information, we’re trying to keep it private”), but clearly it’s been a tidy sum based on all the changes.
Of course, the partners don’t see any other way to do it to accomplish their goals.
They are targeting two main groups. The first is the locals — people from Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster and York counties.
“There’s a shortage of really good restaurants here that serve a unique menu,” Kennedy says. “We wanted to get a real connection with the central PA consumer and treat this as a little getaway.”
The second group? Urbanites from the Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia areas, who will be targeted by Leisure Hotels & Resorts, a professional management team out of Kansas City that specializes in hotels.
“Hotels and resorts are a very complex business. The numbers aren’t huge, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for errors."
Finding the right direction
The biggest question to start was, of course, how much needed to be changed. Kennedy and his partners, including his wife, Katie, and fellow Mechanicsburg residents Molly and Jim Hoffman, went into the project knowing everything was, essentially, on the table.
“We approached it with good, common sense,” Kennedy said with a laugh.
“There are so many people that have master’s degrees in historic this and that, but they take 20 minutes to turn around," he said. "We think good common sense trumps everything else. So, for example, with the mansion (which is more than 200 years old), nothing physically was there that should be touched. It was not that anyone told us. But we didn’t need to be told.
“The Stone Lodge, on the other hand, was a complete abomination, but now we have a beautiful interior patched together. And with the stone walls in the Fairfield (main building), we just wondered what the hell was behind there. We started whacking away in there, and there’s the stone. Today, it’s just gorgeous.”
Yes, some of the development was green. The process included taking down some 300 trees, some 10 tractor-trailer loads of wood. Three truckloads were ferried to a lumber mill in Perry County, which planed and kiln-dried it. That wood has been reused around the property, including in the Barn restaurant.
Practical vs. aesthetic
From an economic standpoint, Kennedy says the resort was not well designed, and that’s largely because it expanded over centuries. “It’s spread way out, and you have to send people here and there to clean.”
The new owners made some bold moves. They completely demolished two buildings — the site has gone from 22 to 20 buildings — and pulled the entrance switcheroo, which Kennedy says was really just a matter of logic.
“We debated that,” he said. “But we feel like the new entrance is more inviting, with the stone wall that we reappointed now the exit.”
The resort also has a new color scheme — much more modern, with a distinctive blue and white now seen on everything from the sign on Route 174 announcing the resort’s latest plays to the new website to freshly printed business cards.
“In five to 10 years, I would like this property to be thought of as the most welcoming rural resort available,” Kennedy says. “We want people to show up and say, ‘Wow, we’ve never been to a place so welcoming.”
So what’s new and different at the Allenberry? Here’s a quick look at how the place is shaping up.
Coffee and sticky buns
The Fairfield, the main building located across from the Playhouse, looks entirely different. The new owners preserved the map of Cumberland County, rendered decades ago, that had graced one of the banquet rooms. But nearly everything else is different.
The Barn has a modern, more industrial feel than the old Breeches Bar & Grille, with exposed piping and brick.
A coffee shop has been added to the lobby of the Fairfield — partner Molly Hoffman was interviewing baristas in late July — and the main room has been opened up. There’s more space, new furniture and a brightness the lobby didn’t possess before, possibly because the entryway was shortened, allowing more sunlight in.
And for those with a sweet tooth who’ve been wondering, yes, the sticky buns are available, and yes, you can buy them in the coffee shop.
The newly renovated pool remains behind the Fairfield, with spigots shooting sprays of water that dazzle in the afternoon light.
The Allenberry opened with a soft launch this year and has been hosting weddings and other events on the property.
This will be another area of focus for the property. Sandy A. Sipe, the acting general manager, has been giving tours to prospective event clients.
She takes them through the cottages — perfect for corporate planning sessions or retreats, she said on a recent tour — and the Pine Lodge, which can hold up to 160 guests, ideal to host a destination wedding, she said.
“They kept what they could where they could, like the hardwood floors,” she said at the Pine Lodge. “Some of the furniture. Well, 90 percent of it was not kept, but look at what we have now,” and she gestured to new artwork, chairs and tables in the main sitting area of the lodge.
The partners knew from the beginning they wanted a spa on the property.
“The idea was that the target group we’re wanting to hit will want a spa as an amenity, but that’s a business we don’t really know,” Kennedy said.
So they did the modern thing. They outsourced it, partnering with Changes Salon and Day Spa in Mechanicsburg. Much of the bottom of the Meadow Lodge has been given over to the spa, which Changes will staff with its therapists, nail artists and hair dressers.
The move sets Allenberry up to better compete with other luxury resorts in Pennsylvania, such as Hotel Hershey and Bedford Springs, which also have on-site spas.
“We thought it was a smarter way to get where we were going, without having to trip and fall,” Kennedy said of the outsourcing.
Yes, Allenberry hopes to continue to be a destination for fly fishermen. The resort has entered into a partnership with Orvis, a well-known fly fishing gear provider.
“We will be endorsed by them to their more than 15 million followers, who follow their lead on where to fish and hunt and what to do,” Kennedy says. “That should broaden our base.”
One thing no longer on the property? The Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Association, long housed at the Meadow Lodge.
Kennedy said it became clear fairly quickly that keeping the museum “wouldn’t be a good fit,” and the two sides reached an amicable parting. The museum moved to LeTort Spring Run in Middlesex Township this past spring.
The Allenberry’s well-loved theater reopened last month with a performance of “Shrek: The Musical.” The new nonprofit Keystone Theatrics has taken over the Playhouse, which opened in 1949 and hosted renowned performers for decades before closing while the previous owners, the Heinze family, searched for a new owner for the property.
On a recent night, Dustin LeBlanc, executive artistic director of Keystone Theatrics, stood in the back of the theater musing about its transformation as rehearsals for the latest play, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” took place up front.
“The people we talk to here say they remember the stories they’ve seen,” LeBlanc says. “We have stories of our own still to tell. We want to stay busy and use the theater as much as possible.”
The revamped Playhouse has fewer seats (252 vs. 400) and a concession area where guests can get refreshments, including beer and wine.
Goals for the Playhouse include bringing in live music and comedians, entertainment Kennedy believes is missing in this area.
And beyond this? Nothing’s out of the question, really. Bocce courts, putting greens, another restaurant, a 300-person banquet room, an indoor pool — these are all on the table, as is a return of the popular Murder Mystery Weekends.
And there’s the 128-home tract being developed on 59 acres next door, a project the Heinze family pursued before the Great Recession. It’s no longer envisioned as a 55-plus community, as the Heinzes had planned, but rather a place where millennials, young families and, yes, retirees can live together.
It will be connected to the resort via a walking trail, and the partners hope to begin work on the project by winter.
Perhaps by then, people will have figured out which entryway to use. For now, Kennedy, his wife and the Hoffmans aren’t going to lose sleep over whether they missed anything. There’s always time.
“You’re always going to miss something, but again, we weren’t afraid. Fear is the biggest driver for all of us, but fear did not enter in or we would have quit. We’re not afraid of what we might have missed. It took us 11 months to get from beat down to reopened,” he said.