The Penn Hills Resort
On January 2nd, I took a day-trip to Analomink, PA, in the Poconos, to explore the abandoned Penn Hills Resort. Once a popular honeymoon getaway, the now decaying property sits vacant, several of the buildings still entirely intact, with a few structures badly damaged by the fire and brimstone of local hooligans. It’s also “fenced off,” but the chain link isn’t trying too hard to keep folks out. In fact, they might as well take the barriers down because they’re not doing anything to stop trespassers from scrambling about or into the property. The layout is odd because the property is divided into four quadrants, both by PA State Routes 191/447 and two creeks, Michael and Brodhead, pouring out of the mountainside.
My quest to crumbling space took place four days before the January 6th insurrection, but on the morning of January 2nd, when I set off to go traipse about the Penn Hills Resort, I don’t know about this — yet. The only thing on my mind was my excitement to take a trip back in time to this weird-ass couple’s resort. But by the end of the day, after narrowly avoiding a run-in with the local sheriff’s office, I still won’t know that, in four days, the country I thought I loved so much will have, once again, turned out to be a fraud.
But I should I also talk about white privilege for a second. For me, the exploration of abandoned spaces has become a transformative and healing hobby. It started as a way to pass the time safely when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy — because like so many people around the world, I didn’t feel safe anywhere. That is, until I became reacquainted with my lifelong fascination of poking about American ruins. It has been in these spaces where I’ve found sanctuary; partly in the real, documented history of each abandoned place, and partly in my imagination, where I’ve unlocked wisdom and comfort and guidance from the ghosts whose stories I’ve dreamt up in my head as I wander through their decaying haunts.
And yet, it didn’t dawn on me until golden hour on January 2nd that my fearless ability to poke about these abandoned spaces and commune with spirits, without worrying about getting arrested, is deeply rooted in white privilege. In most cases, I’m trespassing. To be sure, I’m not causing any harm to any of the remains I explore. I don’t set fires. I don’t make graffiti art. I never take anything out of the spaces I explore. But I’m white. And after almost getting arrested at the end of January 2nd, I asked myself:
Is this sacred and healing wonderment of exploring abandoned spaces another facet of my white privilege?
I open the car door to the back seat of my Nissan Sentra and begin to load-in typical necessities for a routine weekend outing to another abandoned space: lots of water, thick-soled boots (nobody wants tetanus!), camera equipment, a few masks to protect my lungs from mold and mildew and COVID-19, journal, a pen, and however many layers the temperature calls for that day. I look up the weather in the Poconos and much to my surprise, learn it’s going to be an oddly warm day for early January. Still, I decide to pack my puffy winter coat, just in case. My plan is to drive a few hours south of where I live in the Hudson Valley, NY, up into the Poconos, to spend some quality time at the Penn Hills Resort. I begin my descent to Pennsylvania, followed by my ascent into the mountains, which I don’t realize are bursting with abandoned activity. It’s yet another geographical block of the country that, at one moment in time, was economically prosperous, only to have been met with the insidiousness of greed and shifting cultural trends. I whiz by abandoned hotels, resorts, road-side attractions, community centers, homes, all glistening in the oddly present sun as I scurry up the mountainside.
Upon arrival, I pull off to the left-hand side (western) of the resort where I see an open gate. From the highway, it’s difficult to tell just how sprawling the decaying landscape really is. All I see at the entrance is what appears to be a dilapidated restaurant and entertainment venue, attached to a block of rooms over a garage. I’m wearing a thick, black sweatshirt that says 100% HUMAN in place of the breast pocket and put my hand on my heart as I walk past the NO TRESPASSING signs affixed to the shoddy and ajar fencing. As is the case with so many abandoned properties I’ve had the pleasure to explore, NO TRESPASSING seems more like a legal precaution than an actual command. Barriers often cheaply and loosely erected, not in the best shape, but it dawns on me in this moment that, regardless, I have no fear of getting arrested whatsoever. My white privilege precedes me. A black man disregarding NO TRESPASSING signs on a county highway in the middle of Trump Country enters a highly different scenario than a 5’6” unimposing white man entering the exact same scenario.
As I begin to poke my head into various rooms in the first building, I start to wonder the same old question that always passes through my mind: Why did this place shutter its doors and windows? I wonder. Likely tax evasion or fraud, I decide as I begin sniffing around the lower level of the building, happening upon what seems to be some sort of club with an old dance floor, disco lights dangling overhead by a thread, and an upright piano that’s been tipped over and decimated. I never do a ton of research on any All-American Ruins site until after I’ve visited the property because I like to give my imagination a clean slate. As it turns out, “tax evasion or fraud,” like so many spaces I’ve explored, is precisely what ended the life of the Penn Hills Resort in 2009. Millions of dollars of back taxes that never got paid. Employees who never received paychecks. Lawsuits and shady business dealings. (And they got away with it, too. The owners never had to take a single shred of responsibility for breaking the law. They were never held accountable for the monumental evasion of deserting this huge property that stretches for acres and acres on two sides of a busy mountain highway.)
Right before I exit the building, I look on the ground at a pile of papers. Sitting on top is a Gas Mileage Guide from 1982. I skim through the pages, breaking a typical rule not to touch anything. Somehow, holding this 39 year-old relic transports me back to a time when big hair and Wall Street and synthesizers were all the rage. I can smell the gasoline and taste processed foods and hear Ronald Reagan cooly remind Americans about the “sacred fire of liberty” in his January 26th, 1982 State of the Union address.
I begin to walk back further on the wester side of the resort. As I wander towards a curious abandoned, post-modern house that’s sitting at the back of the property for an undetermined reason, I discover an old television frame. I pick it up, put my face into the smashed opening, and I think about the mass media, the 24-hour news cycle, doomscrolling. These things can’t be good for our brains. We all want to be on television.
I shake these thoughts out of my mind, snap a photo, drop the TV shell, and make my way to the strange beauty of the post-modern house. Though it’s unconfirmed, I am almost positive that this Versacian nightmare, full of art deco wallpaper and Italian-appropriated architecture, belonged to the owners of the Penn Hills Resort (originally opened in 1944), Frances Paolillo and his wife. I can barely set foot in any portion of the house because the floors are caving in throughout, so I snap a few photos through the windows and in the one spot I’m able to wander the hallways surrounding the center courtyard. I imagine swingers’ parties that took place here.
I wonder what life before the internet and online dating looked like. How did you know if you liked someone before examining their life on a social media platform? Did people just… talk to one another? I’m an introverted extrovert, so large social gatherings always make me nervous. There’s another upright piano in this house, also tipped over, next to a giant indoor fountain. I can hear the chatter of champagne glasses clinking together over the roar of the piano playing Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” on repeat as the fountain cycles dirty water and couples laugh, kiss, wander into empty rooms for “alone time.”
At the backside of the house, I come across a poignant feast of graffiti sprayed onto the gold-and-yellow brick, including a giant red FUCK YOU situated neatly next to an American flag. The distance between the two is just enough that they could be unrelated, but I don’t think they are. It’s a sentiment I don’t forget. We live in a country with a lot of freedom and privilege, but who does that narrative apply to? What happens if we dissect the catchphrase “Freedom and Justice For All?” Might we find underneath the glimmer and glitz that it’s nothing more than one of the greatest marketing schemes of all time?
These thoughts pummel through my head as I leave the Paolillo residence and make my way to the opposite side of the resort, but not before I enter the skeletal remains of what must’ve been a gymnasium of some sort, charred to the bone with nothing but a metal shell remaining, scorched basketball hoops still intact. I glance into the sun blasting on my face and close my eyes. I can hear the sound of sneakers screeching on the gymnasium floor, basketballs dribbling, men yelling, “Over here!” I remember my days at the YMCA in my hometown Colorado Springs, running around the indoor track as people below played basketball. I’m no good at organized sports, but I do love to watch a game of basketball.
As I cross the county road, two other explorers, a couple, are hopping out of their car to enter the eastern side of the resort with me. I smile and wave back at them, but in my head, I groan, Uhnnngnnnn, cmonnnnwhyyyy. The preeminent reason I adore these expeditions to abandoned spaces is the silence and solitude I often get to experience as the sole occupant. It always feels unsettling when I cross paths with other folks out trying to pass the time while the pandemic winter continues to hold its mighty grip on the planet.
Once the three of us pass through the shoddy chain link fence, I walk in the polar opposite direction, hooking a left around the wedding bell-shaped pool in front of the main hotel, full of likely the cheapest accommodations at the resort. In commercials I discover on YouTube, the Penn Hills Resort was no joke. They had it all, several different room types: private cabins further up the creek running through the property; more remote, larger cabins on stilts built into the wooded hillside; full-blown three-story condos; then plain-Jane hotel rooms; but no matter accommodation, each and every room was fitted with your classic heart-shaped tub. A majority of these rooms and buildings still exist on the property, entirely intact, save the years of wear and tear.
One of those tubs, along with several other pieces of furniture, is partially frozen into the murky ice that fills the pool, and as I walk around it, I close my eyes and pretend that it’s 1975. I’m here with my a hot boyfriend, but that’s when the dream stops short. I open my eyes. I wouldn’t have been welcome here in 1975, alluding to the commercial I found on YouTube, full of cisgendered, straight white folks sauntering about with perfect teeth and big hair. I know that if I saw that commercial now, not a queer couple in sight, I wouldn’t come.
I reach the final cabin up the creek and come across a burned-out vehicle sitting in the back. For some reason, the two found objects that always perplex me in these spaces are abandoned cars and abandoned shoes. How did this person get out of here without their shoes or their car? Did a friend show up? The car is covered in graffiti, as always, and I imagine a Vietnam War defector left it here, en route to Canada, evading his war-time responsibilities. In my head, I cheer him on.
I hop to the opposite side of the creek and climb a steep hill, littered with more heart-shaped tubs. Most of the rooms on this property have been emptied of their kitschy bathrooms, only the raised platform to climb in and outline of the bathtub remaining, to indicate what used to sit there. I enter one of these elevated cabins and find some impressive graffiti art inside. In fact, a large percentage of the graffiti on this property is stunning, more than most places I’ve visited. There’s a woman’s face boasting giant lips, sucking on a lollipop. I ask her, “Where’d you get that?” “The front desk, dummy” she blurts with a wink.
I hop off the cabin deck and peer underneath. There, in bold in letters, lives a giant message, plastered onto the side of the concrete foundation that reads OUT HERE IN THE BOONDOCKS DODGIN COVID-19 LIKE THE COPS. I let the slant rhyme slide because I’m so struck by this moment in our country’s history. It’s January 2nd, 2021, and by the end of the day, 2,373 more Americans will have passed from COVID-19. By the end of the day, police will have killed, on average, 3 Black American citizens.
And in four days, there will be a breach at the Capitol, and a second Civil War will begin. Not like the first one ended to begin with.
I make my way back down the hill to explore the last of the resort. By this point, it’s crawling with spectators. I enter the hotel’s lobby, taking my last photographs before I depart.
As I come back to the county highway where my journey began, I approach my parked car, now surrounded by several other parked cars. There are more people here than I realized. I climb in, turn the key, and seconds later, a gaggle of cops pulls up, lights blazing. They jump out, shouting at all visible trespassers. I don’t see one cop approach my car, and when he taps on the window, I jump. I roll down my window. “Were you just in there?” “Nope. Pulled over to send a text,” I lie. He grumbles an “I’m sorry,” and heads up to his buddies, pulling folks out of the sprawling Penn Hills Resort.
And as I put the key into the ignition, turn the car on, and pull away, I wonder: What would’ve happened just then if I was Black?