March 13, 2013

Checking in to Some Little-Known Hotel History in Bedford Springs, Pa.

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa in 1930. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
Bedford Springs Resort & Spa in 1930

When we spoke to George Takei for Preservation magazine’s winter issue, the actor shared his own harrowing experience of being interned in an Arkansas camp with his family and other Japanese-Americans during WWII. The article, along with an online follow-up about the courageous Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd regimental unit, drew the attention of Mary Dorner, executive assistant at the historic Bedford Springs Resort & Spa in Bedford, Pa., who reached out to share the hotel’s own little-known connection to the same tense period in American history.

Already historic in its own right -- from having been visited by 11 U.S. presidents to its lobby being on the receiving end of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 -- the National Historic Landmark (now owned in part by Omni Hotels & Resorts, and one of our Historic Hotels of America) was also the surprising site of containment for nearly 200 Japanese diplomats, embassy staff, and their families in 1945.

“The history of this hotel is kind of like a book with a whole lot of different chapters,” says S. Lee Bowden, the hotel's general manager. “During that period of time when the war was going on we were an internment center. The Greenbriar [resort in West Virginia] was a medical hospital. The resort business was basically gone, so resorts were used for other things.”

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa today. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
The resort today

As the war in Europe was coming to a close in the spring of 1945, Allied forces rounded up Japanese diplomatic personnel who had either fled to or were living in places like Sweden and Austria. Officials from the U.S. State Department felt the captured diplomats might come in handy for prisoner exchanges or other tactics and needed a place to house them.

Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of south-central Pennsylvania, the Bedford Springs Resort was vacant (the owners had plans to renovate at the time), isolated, and less than three hours from Washington, D.C. The resort, founded in 1796, had previously served the war effort as a radio school for the navy. The first group of detainees, including General Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese ambassador to Germany, arrived in Bedford in August 1945.

News of the hotel’s new “guests” spread quickly and angered locals who saw the containment of an enemy nation's diplomats at a sprawling resort as a slap in the face. “Some of them had sons and daughters, mostly sons, who were interned in Japanese camps and they were treated very cruelly and here we’re putting up these Japanese ambassadors, representatives of their country, in a luxurious hotel,” Bill Defibaugh, the hotel’s resident historian, says.

A couple staying at the resort. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
A couple staying at the resort, date unknown

Mounting tensions and protests led to a State Department-led meeting to calm residents’ tempers. As a local newspaper reported on the event, officials explained “that the swimming pool would not be available for the detainees, nor the golf course. Their recreation will be limited to walking up and down inside the stockade (a 7-ft. board fence which has been built around the south portion of the lawn). Their meals will be handled in cafeteria style and their rooms furnished as barely as possible.”

Though the Japanese surrendered in mid-August, the diplomats remained at the resort through November, when they were sent by train to California and eventually flown home to Japan. According to Defibaugh, some of the internees returned to the resort years later and recalled their time spent there, but otherwise this chapter in the resort’s history rarely gets the kind of attention some of its other past stories garner. Soon after the diplomats left, the hotel was renovated and reopened, quickly rising to luxury getaway status once again in the 1950s.

By the 1980s, the resort was worn down. The then-endangered property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, but closed in 1986. But that wasn’t the end for the history-rich Bedford Springs Hotel: In 2007, it reopened once more after a more than $120 million restoration.

Hotel historian Bill Defibaugh pores over old guest ledgers in the hotel's archives. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
Hotel historian Bill Defibaugh pores over guest ledgers in the hotel's archives.

While no exhibits or plaques at the resort currently tell of the hotel’s episode as a wartime detainment center, a private storeroom filled with archival documents and photographs on site has plenty of material on that time period and others, and staff like Dorner, Bowden, and others are happy to share its stories with guests and visitors.

“As Mr. Takei pointed out in your article,” Dorner wrote in her initial email about the historic event, “there is a remarkable value in exploring these moments of our heritage -- and where they took place.”

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