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The Ship sails choppy seas

$900,000 price tag might sink old Route 30 hotel that is dying of decay

Sunday, November 15, 1998

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SCHELLSBURG, Pa. -- They called it the S.S. Grand View Ship Hotel -- a five-story structure fashioned to look like a cruise ship, planted atop one of Pennsylvania's steepest mountain sides, maybe America's ultimate monument to roadside kitsch.

That was then.

On a sunny afternoon this week, Jean Blackburn was standing outside this landmark curiosity -- now locked, boarded, comatose and dying.

But in Blackburn's mind she was a half-century away, back in the days of the hand-tinted Ship Hotel postcard she held, rummaging through memories of times when the place was alive and bright and busy.

Blackburn was 20 then, working at The Ship as anything from maid to maintenance woman. She was a witness to the crowds, the celebrities, the traffic that streamed along Route 30 -- the Lincoln Highway -- where it is laced through these mountains of western Bedford County.

"The clientele -- very nice people -- came from so far away," said Blackburn, who now lives in Friedens, Somerset County. "There were just so many good memories."

Soon -- maybe in just a year or so, by one forecast -- postcards and memories might be what's left of the hotel. The Ship is sinking in decay.

A Greensburg-based historic preservation agency offered to attempt a rescue, but The Ship's owner says the agency's proposed purchase price is a swindle, maybe $850,000 too little.

So the slow death continues. The Ship's wood and steel skin is coming loose. Pieces of floor have given way. Since an 800-foot well dried up, the only running water comes through the roof on rainy days.

A company that examined the hotel predicted that, unattended, the building might last as little as a year, said Olga Herbert, executive director of the nonprofit Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, an agency pushing to buy and resurrect the building.

"A structural engineer said, 'Olga, if you don't acquire it soon, you won't have to. It won't be there,"' she said.

"It's salvageable," said John Matthews, owner of Matthews Wall Anchor Service, a Beaver Falls company that examined the supports anchoring the ship to the mountain. "But right now, I wouldn't want to open it as a tourist attraction and put a lot of people in there."

To preservationists, the irony is that this pauper is roadside royalty. America has taken to lining same-looking highways with same-looking businesses, but when the Lincoln Highway became the nation's first coast-to-coast auto route 83 years ago, merchants mixed neon, quirkiness and unabashed pretentiousness to draw traffic.

Seven miles east of The Ship, an 18-foot plaster Pied Piper heralds a long-disappeared children's park. Seven miles east of that, one side of a restaurant was built in the round, 20 feet high, outfitted with a replica handle and spout and dubbed The Coffee Pot.

"The Ship, though, is one of the pre-eminent pieces of roadside architecture anywhere on the Lincoln Highway today," said Kevin Patrick, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania geography professor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Lincoln Highway and now is head of the state chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association.

"Restored, it ranks right up at the top -- if not No. 1 then in the top 10."

When talk about The Ship turns to money, though, it goes sour.

Jack and Mary Loya, parents of five children, who live a half mile downhill from The Ship, bought the place 20 years ago for $70,000. Jack Loya coaches the Cambria County Area Community College basketball team. His wife is an elementary school librarian in the Greater Johnstown School District, but they haven't added successful roadside entrepreneurs to their resumes.

The Loyas covered The Ship's metal shell with brown clapboard, renamed it Noah's Ark, watched it sputter out of business a decade later then come back to them after a failed sale attempt.

"We tried having a petting zoo across the road," Jack Loya said as he stood on The Ship's deck in paint-spattered clothes, next to a paint-spattered collie, painting rusted railings. "But we had a bear die and a lion die on us."

Now, the Loyas want $900,000 for The Ship, Herbert said.

The Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, one of nine regional state-designated historic preservation agencies, paid for an appraisal that set the value at less than $50,000, Jack Loya said.

"I have $300,000 in it. It costs me $1,100 a month in tax and mortgage payments," Loya said. "They're trying to steal it from me."

"There's no way I'd pay $900,000," Herbert said. "If he really loves it and wants to save it, he should be reasonable."

"I want to see it saved, but if it's going to happen, it has to happen now," said Clara Gardner.

She lives about 15 miles away, near Bedford. But in 1931, she became the first and only child born in The Ship.

Her grandfather was Herbert Paulson, a Dutch immigrant who bought a hot dog stand at a Lincoln Highway lookout 2,464 feet above sea level, 1,100 feet above the Bedford County farmland below.

Paulson didn't want for imagination or moxie. In three years, the place had become a four-story hotel, finished off with turrets to look like a castle. Then, in short order, Paulson changed its looks. By 1932, he added a fifth floor and outfitted the building with masts, fake smokestacks and a deck where scenery-seekers were supposed to be able to gaze across 63 miles, into three states and seven counties.

"He said he made it look like a ship because the fog in the valley looked like the sea," Gardner said.

Paulson took to calling himself Capt. Paulson, outfitted the help in sailor suits and decorated the place in nautical motif, Gardner said.

He packed the place. Greta Garbo came. So did Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Tom Mix brought his horse.

"People came in bus loads,"

Blackburn said.

"We were open 24 hours a day," said Gardner, who, save for time away at boarding school, lived her first 18 years at The Ship.

But by 1939, The Ship's crew could have gone on deck and focused the ship telescope on hard times coming seven miles to the south. The first 160-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Turnpike was being laid at 3.5 miles a day

The Lincoln Highway, with climbs and turns that engineers ironed out on the turnpike, was about to become second choice.

By 1978, when the Loyas bought it, The Ship was a failing roadside relic, starving on too little traffic. It dwindled to little more than a gift shop and snack bar then folded.

Loya refused to unlock the doors this week for a reporter. "I had a family living in there, and it's torn up," he said.

But Herbert told of a visit during the spring where she saw holes in the floor, filth from a family that briefly occupied the building last year and water leaking through the roof.

"I can tell you clearly it was raining inside," Herbert said.

But The Ship might not be beyond salvation, she said. Herbert said it could be purchased, put into private hands and its 14 guest rooms combined as a profitable five-room bed-and-breakfast. She'd like to see a feasibility study to offer more certainty but says that before the state funds such a study, it has to see a commitment to sell.

Which brings us back to the standoff.

Herbert said state and federal money wouldn't let her agency pay more than the appraised value of The Ship. She insisted foundations wouldn't give her grants to pad the selling price to Loya's satisfaction.

Might Loya settle for, say, $500,000?

"I'd talk about it," he said.

Maybe $300,000?

"Don't know."

Jack Loya talks about demolishing The Ship to build a house or turning it into 20 condominiums "so we could get a couple million dollars" -- then concedes that's part bravado to rattle Herbert and her agency.

"But they don't know me. They don't know that tenacity's a factor," he said. "They think they're dealing with a person interested in money. I'm interested in fairness."

"I have a feeling he'll go to his grave feeling he's sitting on a gold mine," Herbert said.

As for Clara Gardner, she's hoping for a solution. She's also emotionally distancing herself from her birthplace, just in case no compromise comes.

"I'd like it to be saved. It was a wonderful place, but with that wood they put over the metal, it doesn't look like The Ship anymore," she said. It's not what I remember."

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