Yorktowne Hotel has withstood challenges of changing city for decades
The long-awaited opening of the Yorktowne Hotel has tested the patience of many York County residents.
And the $50 million-plus price tag has made some wonder how many visitors it would take to make good on that investment.
But if the venerable downtown York hotel had a voice and soul — actually, some say it has a spirit in the form of a friendly, mischievous eighth-floor ghost who likes to play with the elevators — it might say back to these critics: Hey, you’ve kind of abandoned me at least three times in my 98 years. Have a little patience with me, please.
Three times? At least.
Let’s look at those moments in which the towering Yorktowne withstood challenges as its neighborhood and city changed at its foot. And effective this week, the persevering 1925 structure reopened to do business in another chapter of York County’s story.
Challenges at mid-century
York’s rugged times in the 1960s are well known. Perhaps it’s actually as much a story about York County and its suburbs.
The year 1950 stands as a high-water mark in York’s population with the post-World War II baby boom. That census explosion caused the city, reaching about 60,000 people, to leak residents to Springettsbury Township’s Haines Acres and other suburban developments. That major subdivision went up in the mid-1950s near the burgeoning Caterpillar plant and the Sears-anchored York County Shopping Center.
When the 1960 census was totaled, York had lost 9% of its population, a trend of losses each decade that finally ended with a Latino-influenced gain in the 2010 census.
Some downtown retailers took in the suburban growth and followed their customers with stores in the North Mall and other shopping centers. The twin disrupters that hit the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s — the York race riots and Tropical Storm Agnes — accelerated the loss in population.
Of course, the Yorktowne’s accountants would have noticed this slowing of downtown activity and likely began wondering when the business downtick would end.
I-83 and Route 30
A second challenging moment is bundled with the first.
Interstate 83 was officially opened in 1959, forming a north/south bypass of York. A decade later, the Route 30 bypass allowed traffic moving east and west to avoid the downtown’s Market Street, the main road to the Yorktowne.
Three years later, the Wright’s Ferry Bridge opened for motorists to whisk across the Susquehanna into Lancaster County. This gave access to the Park City Mall, only 12 miles from York County. The massive and sparkling mall immediately dated the 4-year-old York Mall.
The loss of vehicular traffic was one thing. Downtown York’s loss of shoppers to suburban townships and Lancaster County was another.
For the Yorktowne, the growth of chain motels along these new arteries, with national booking opportunities, was another. Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, for example, was already in place along I-83 when the Route 30 bypass opened.
You could say that the symbolic heart of York County moved from the pedestrian-friendly Continental Square to the cloverleafed area, reserved for motorists, where the Route 30 bypass crossed under Interstate 83. (More about this next week.)
More:Saving Yorktowne: Unlikely story of how York landed Hilton and why that's such a big deal
A third pivotal moment
That suburban move aside, most of what was left of downtown York’s activity repositioned to the north and west of Continental Square early this century. This represented a third pivotal moment for the Yorktowne as the hotel plodded on into its second century.
This move left the old hotel virtually alone in its now-quiet East Market Street neighborhood.
The York County Judicial Center went up on a vacant lot at Philadelphia and George streets. Further north, Sovereign Bank Stadium opened for the York Revolution’s first minor league baseball season in 2007.
Shops opened in the Market/Arts District around Central Market, a comeback still evident today.
For a short time after the year 2000, the first block of West Market Street sizzled with nightclubs and eateries in the mold of Harrisburg’s Second Street. Thankfully, that activity fizzled as the block attracted little investment except for facades in a revitalization effort that had a tawdry look. The first block has since been replaced with eateries and business with a firmer feel.
As York’s downtown entered the 2010s, foot traffic in and around Continental Square became sparse. The York County Administrative Center operating in the old courthouse did not create the same pedestrian traffic, with many county functions now in the Judicial Center.
The Yorktowne, with its large marquee, bright lights and towering rooftop American flag, hung on. Then about halfway through the 2010s, the beleaguered hotel closed.
The perfect storm of chain hotels, eateries and vehicular traffic in the suburbs and investment going to other parts of the downtown staggered the venerable hotel. The hotel’s doors were locked for retooling.
And that restoration happened with the York County Industrial Development Authority’s guidance, its comeback capstone coming with Hilton’s decision to make the Yorktowne part of its Tapestry Collection of vintage hotels.
Revolving door has meaning
Perhaps its iconic revolving door is a symbol of the hotel’s new spirit and outlook.
Visitors now check in to the rear, where the 1957 parking garage and seven-story addition once stood. Patrons can then park in the East Market Street garage and reenter the hotel through that restored revolving door.
After resting in their room, visitors can again move through the revolving door and have at least two directions to head to eat and shop. They can walk toward Continental Square, which is regaining life with the Prince Street Cafe, the Iron Horse York eatery and other key storefronts filled.
They can proceed farther north on North George to restaurant row or take in a ballgame. Visitors have the option of heading west to the Market District.
Or they can head south on Duke Street to eat and shop in a district that has accelerated in the past five years: Royal Square. This artsy neighborhood is within view from just outside that revolving door or through the hotel’s back entrance.
Yorktowne’s ‘special presence’
You see, when the Yorktowne was regrouping, the hotel’s neighborhood — York’s downtown — was also gaining investment and energy.
And now this vintage hotel no longer stands alone.
Inside, that eighth-floor ghost once again will have more opportunity for mischief. He’s been quiet during construction that meant change to his haunting grounds.
“The elevators have all new mechanicals and cabs,” the York County Economic Alliance’s project manager Kim Hogeman says, “but in my opinion, I still think there is a special presence within the Yorktowne.”
Jim McClure is a retired editor of the York Daily Record and has authored or co-authored nine books on York County history. Reach him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Yorktowne Hotel has withstood challenges of changing city for decades