I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.
Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:
The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:
Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.
Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.
“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.
Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:
Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball
In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.
When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.
We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.
Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.
If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.
Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”
If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.
The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.
Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.
It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.
It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.
It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.
It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …
It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”
“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.
Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.
All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.
I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:
When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.
We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?
We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.
In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.
When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:
Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.
And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.
To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.