Written by Danielle Taylor | Photos courtesy of the Hygrade Inn
As an Emporium native, Jim Wendel has a vested interest in the well-being of his hometown, and although he now calls Philadelphia his primary home, he’s still connected with his Cameron County roots. As such, he had long dreamed of opening a business there that could help the small community flourish. When he learned the old Bernard Erskine home at 212 East 4th Street on Emporium’s central thoroughfare was up for sale, he knew the time was right. In May 2016, Wendel, his husband David Karkoska, and their friend Sharon Robinson purchased the property and set out to develop a boutique hotel unlike anything in the area.
Built in 1880, the residence had served as a stately home for a number of families over the years, but its most noteworthy occupant was Bernard Erskine, founder of the Sylvania Products Company, which later merged with two other companies to form the Hygrade Sylvania Corporation. Sylvania is still a well-known brand in light bulbs, and Emporium is proud of its history with this household name. According to Wendel, Erskine bought the home in 1908, and it stayed in the family until the 1970s. After that, two superintendents of schools lived there, then a couple bought it and operated it as a bed and breakfast for about a year and a half. From there, a woman purchased it and operated it as a nursing home and then a group home for a quarter of a century. By the time Wendel, Karkoska, and Robinson bought the house, it was in serious need of repair.
“It needed a huge amount of work,” Wendel said. “The people who had lived there [in recent years] were transient, and the place was destroyed.” However, he noted, “The woodwork was flawless, and the old light fixtures were still in place.”
The owners started by painting the outside of the house immediately after purchase to let the town know they were serious about the job, then they hired Mike Moyer of Moyer Construction to handle the rest of the renovation, which he began in February 2018.
“We basically ripped out all of the ceiling up to insulated attic,” Wendel said, “and we replaced all the electric and plumbing in the house and put in recessed lighting.” Moyer and his crew also installed a commercial kitchen in place of the previous one and added new bathrooms and a spacious mahogany porch. Overall, the goal was to modernize the home while keeping its historic architectural details intact. The construction crew worked from February to the beginning of June, and then the owners began decorating, furnishing, and preparing it to receive guests.
Sadly, David Karkoska passed away last August, so he wasn’t able to see the home open in December. However, he and Wendel’s niece, Amy Karkoska, now serves as innkeeper, and the unique lodging property now serves as an enduring part of his legacy in Emporium.
Overnight guests can enjoy luxuriantly outfitted rooms complete with individual bathrooms, each of which boasts a large shower, as well as a delicious breakfast menu that always includes a daily special, such as a quiche or strata.
Wendel noted that the facility has held several special events so far, including “Cocktails for a Cause” to benefit a local charity and holiday events like a Valentine’s Day dessert night. Room rentals are booked so far through Labor Day, and with several class reunions happening in the summer, the hotel already has weekends sold out for most of June, July, and August.
Future renovations include a bar in the dining room and an accessible ramp on the home’s exterior. Wendel noted that Emporium has a large number of elderly residents who remember what the town was like decades ago, and he wants to ensure they can access the house and see what he and his team have done. The home will also be a satellite location for the in-progress Rich Valley Winery, which will also be based in Emporium. Overall, Wendel hopes the destination will continue to open a lot of new opportunities for the town and play an important role in its revitalization.
“Once you start doing high end, you have to keep doing it,” Wendel said.
Learn more and find other interesting places to visit in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to VisitPAGO.com or calling (814) 849-5197.