Specialness of Place

  • Rathskeller’s closing

    I wrote last month about the All-American Rathskeller in State College. Herlocher’s, the new owners of the Foster Building (in which the Skeller is located) failed to come to agreement on a lease renewal with Duke Gastinger, the Skeller’s owner. The Skeller, opened 1933, was the oldest bar in State College and one of the oldest in Pennylvania. It closed last night for the final time, and something new (but hopefully in its spirit) will open there on 116 Pugh Street later this year.

    As sorry as I am to see this place closed, it was great to celebrate the Skeller and raise a glass this weekend with friends like Kevin Horne, Gavin Keirans, Paul Clifford, Maggie Quinn, Anthony Christina, and so many others. Scenes from the final hours:

    I hope whatever comes next retains its character and spirit of times past.

  • Bellefonte scenes

    I spent some time visiting Bellefonte, and paying a visit to Evan and Rebecca Valentine Pugh’s gravesite in Union Cemetery, while in Centre County. Bellefonte is a beautiful Victorian-style community. It gave rise to many governors in the 19th century, and at one time was a contender to become Pennsylvania’s capital city. I’ll share some scenes from Union Cemetery next week. In the meantime, check out Bellefonte:

  • Sara Joy Proppe shares a beautiful but heart-rending encounter with an elderly woman in a big box store parking lot:

    A couple of months ago, I was leaving the store about 8:30 at night when I noticed an elderly woman pushing her shopping cart into the vast expanse of empty parking lot. The scene struck me as odd because, it being winter in Minnesota, the sun was well beyond set, the weather was nippy, and she appeared to be going in the direction of nowhere with no identifiable car in her line of sight. I shrugged it off and got in my car to head home. A few hundred yards later, as I was exiting the lot, there was the woman again except now she was waving at me. I slowed down and paused a moment wondering what to do. Did she need my help? Was I about to get myself into a situation with a “crazy” lady? I uttered a quick prayer for wisdom and rolled down my window.

    She politely asked if I was going in the direction of Western Avenue, which was along my route home. When I confirmed I was, she asked if I might be willing to drive her home. Though I knew better than to really be concerned that she might harm me, I ran through a quick mental checklist anyway of the ways one might avoid being murdered by a stranger. “Establish a personal connection” was one counsel that came to mind, so I asked her name and inquired how she had been planning to get home.

    “My name is Miss Mackenzie,” she answered. She explained she had been planning to take the bus, but it had gotten late, and the bus was so complicated anyway. Then she added, “And, it’s just so much nicer to have somebody to talk to.” I was sold. I made room in my backseat for her groceries and we began our drive home. I learned about her years as a flight attendant, what she studied in college, the places she had lived, the languages she spoke… She was a fountain of words. Arriving at her senior living facility, she thanked me and promised that whether it mattered to me, she would pray for me. The truth is, it mattered so much to me.

    Strong Towns provides the context for Sara Joy’s encounter, explaining what sort of things are important characteristics of great communities:

    Sara Joy’s essay below is simple and beautiful, and it highlights a tremendously important topic: the impact of our auto-oriented cities on senior citizens. There’s a popular trend in the media right now of talking about how traditional downtowns and urban cores are the “playgrounds of the rich” where young people flock so that they can walk to breweries and restaurants and live in trendy converted warehouses… In fact, walkable neighborhoods are attractive to and needed for people of all ages. Seniors in particular benefit from neighborhoods where they can safely run errands, visit friends, and go about their days without needing a vehicle, since many of them cannot drive.

    Unfortunately, most of our cities are designed in a way that makes life nearly impossible for people who don’t drive. And the dangers of un-walkable neighborhoods where cars speed through and pedestrians must contend with crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks, unsafe intersections, and so on… well they’re actually most harmful to the most vulnerable members of our communities: kids and seniors. A simple moment in a grocery store parking lot brought that home for Sara Joy…

  • Rathskeller

    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.

  • Warm, nameless spaces

    As I was walking through Center City last week, past 12th Street toward Broad, this incredible little restaurant with large open alley doors and warm, bright interior stunned me by its sheer unexpectedness. Happening upon places like this, with their little worlds of activity playing out right in front of you and welcoming you to join them, all while on foot and healthy, is one of the greatest values of city life.

    I didn’t notice the name of this place. That’s also a sign of healthy community life—the spirit of a place makes more of an impression on you than the brand name.

  • Metro


    I’m in Washington for Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network-related reasons, and snapped this photo as I got in late last night from Philadelphia on Amtrak.

    The Metro system is unlike anything else I’ve seen, such a great example of architectural brutalism that’s somehow not appalling in the way that brutalism, by its nature, tends to be. The dimly lit stations feel elegant rather than dismal, thanks to the contrast of the vaulted ceilings and truly monumental scale of things like the exit stairs at stations like Woodley Park:

    File Oct 10, 2 08 48 PM.jpeg

    For all of its problems and the complaints of Washingtonians, Metro offers something that basically no other system in the country does: a sense of coherence and consistency and maybe even beauty in its stations. All of this makes travel feel energizing, rather than enervating in the way systems too often do. It shows that there can be a certain beauty in public works, even in a capitalistic society.

    Los Angeles does a pretty great job, too, if only because it seems so few use it.

  • Village life

    I came across this photo on Twitter, and I’m not sure what place this photo depicts. But I’m sharing it because it comes close to depicting probably my ideal vision of “village life” in Europe or European-style American communities.

    A sort of oasis of community, tucked between mountains and nestled amongst the hills, with rising steeples and signs of industrial life and aesthetically meaningfully architecture, all within a physical space that can be experienced in its entirety on foot while peeking in shop windows, saying hello to neighbors and making new friends, and ultimately coming to your own little home amidst it all.

    At least from this angle, it looks like the polar opposite of the atomized sort of communities we’ve built through suburbanization.

  • Sister Cities Park

    Center City District redeveloped the old concrete Sister Cities Plaza into the incredible Sister Cities Park five or so years ago. This is a tiny little park on the edge of Logan Circle, right in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. I can look out onto Sister Cities Park from the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network offices.

    It’s a beautiful little space, and especially in summertime when the fountains are on and people of all ages are out. I snapped this photo earlier this week when I was sitting with Bobby Schindler having lunch. Ashley Hahn on Sister Cities Park after its recreation:

    The design team wanted to bring elements of Fairmount Park onto the Parkway, and the discovery garden is meant evoke a child-sized Wissahickon. The rocky hill at the northern end – a surprising change in grade– has a trail, logs, and a stream winding its way down to the pool below. The plantings and decorative fence are also expicit nods to the flora and fauna of the Wissahickon.

    After being inside the Academy of Natural Sciences or Franklin Institute for part of the day, the discovery garden is “about finding a way for kids to engage… get a little bit wet, a little bit dirty,” said Hanes. Kids can amble along the hill or push rented toy boats around in the pool.

    Bridging the formality of the Sister Cities Fountain plaza and the charmingly rustic children’s garden is an inviting, modern pavilion. Digsau’s Jules Dingle described the pavilion as a threshold space, designed to create a “seamless transition from city to garden.”

    Dingle explained that the pavilion’s form deliberately echoes “rock forms that might loom overhead and create shelter” somewhere deep in the Wissahickon. The texture and tone of the pavilion’s natural materials soften the design’s sharp angles, and create a critical visual link in the park’s landscape. From inside, the glassy walls provide a 260° vista of Sister Cities Park, Swann Fountain, and the Parkway beyond.

    Little spots like this contribute to the “specialness of place” that residents and visitors alike feel about the day-to-day experience of being someplace. It’s often in the “little things” that the big changes find their initial momentum.

  • Earlier this year, in advance of traveling to California, I had planned to drive a bit of the Pacific Coast Highway again like I did last year. But this spring a mudslide took out significant portions of the scenic roadway near Big Sur, south of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Not clear when it will be reopened, but the tenuous nature of the roadway underscores that it might not last forever, let alone my lifetime. When it reopens, I hope to drive that stretch at least one more time. Big Sur in particular is a remarkable place, akin somewhat to Glacier National Park that I trained through six years ago:

    By now, Big Sur’s severing from the outside world has unnerved even locals who are used to recurring plunges into isolation.

    “It’s not a unique situation for us to be shut off,” said Kirk Gafill, the owner of Nepenthe, a cliffside restaurant that’s operated in Big Sur for nearly 70 years.

    He recalled past mudslides on Highway 1 that had closed the Central Coast hideaway between Carmel and San Simeon for 10 weeks.

    “But this one is so different because now we’re in week 20,” he said late last week. “The timeline is just epic.” …

    In the meantime, with summer upon us, the few visitors have been seeing a rare crowd-free version of Big Sur.

    Anthony Albert, from Oakland, lugged his bike along a half-mile hiking trail that circumvents the downed Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and cycled all the way to Paul’s Slide and back.

    In roughly eight hours of riding, he said, he encountered maybe 10 people.

    “It was surreal,” said Mr. Albert, 27. “It felt like I was in the afterlife, like reliving a past experience with nobody around.”

  • Why aren’t people talking about college towns? We talk so much in this country about the importance of a college education, but there’s comparably little talk about the places where that education takes place. We talk as if learning is (or can be) divorced from the place where it occurs. We might be able to do that in the future, but from our historical experience, the two are intimately related—what we learn and where we live matters.

    Earlier this year I was talking with Chris Buchignani and Kevin Horne, two friends in State College, Pennsylvania, and we decided to try having “private conversations, publicly shared” about college towns in a way that we could share them publicly. In the spirit of our time, this means something that might be a podcast. We recorded a very rough pilot episode using Anchor, with me calling in from my Milwaukee hotel room and Kevin and Chris joining from Park Forest Village in State College:

    If we continue these, the idea would be to do seasons of something like a dozen episodes. The first season would consist of episodes focused on specific aspects and themes of college what’s, and what make these places so distinctive.