Monday, March 3, 2008

The Cross Keys Tavern/Chrome Hotel

HABS 1959

Same view, 2008

Say you're driving down a pretty country road. You cross from northern Maryland into southern Pennsylvania, and up at the top of the road you see this massive, hulking old stone house that looks like it came out of a time warp. Its decrepit condition is disturbing, and when you do some poking around, it seems that this building has an unusual level of historic significance. Built in three sections, it served for many years as a tavern and dwelling. Among its more unique features, the old inn has a rare diamond-pattern carved front door, and the second floor has an unusual early folding partition between two of the rooms.

It appears that the Cross Keys Tavern, also known as the Chrome Hotel, hasn't changed much at all since it was documented by HABS in 1959. It's a lot more run-down, the front-yard sapling has become a handsome tree, and the road has inched closer, but no obvious alterations. It does not appear to have been occupied in 1959 or since then. On one hand, this means nobody has updated it for modern-day lifestyles, and it probably remains in a state of high historic integrity. On the other hand, it is probably pretty useless to its owner, and is deteriorating at a rapid rate. But what incentive would your average property owner have to put money into its upkeep?

I don't know the story behind this house and its owners, but I've been driving past it for nearly four years and watching it steadily decay. The roof has growing holes and is failing rapidly at one corner, a few upstairs windows are broken, one fascia board is coming off, and the exterior stucco is disintegrating. Once the water gets in, it's the beginning of the end. The interior is now at high risk of being lost forever. A couple of years ago, someone tied a huge green tarp over the entire roof, but within a few months the wind had torn it to shreds, and there has been no further attempt to protect it from the elements.

When I see something like this, it really bums me out, because even as a preservationist, I'm not sure how to fix a situation like this. The Cross Keys is so valuable from a historic and architectural perspective--it could teach us so much about life in the 1700s and 1800s. But most property owners today would see this thing as a giant eyesore, or a money pit, or a candidate for Extreme Makeover - Home Edition. If you approached them to ask them to take care of it, they just might resent the intrusion and bulldoze the entire thing. Maybe the family wants to hang onto it but can't afford to keep it up. Maybe it's tied up in someone's estate dispute, or family members can't agree what to do with it. Maybe it's subject to legal conditions we don't know about. For all I know, people have been trying for years to purchase and save it, but have been prevented from doing so. There doesn't seem like there's a lot you can do as a concerned bystander in a rural area like this, in a county (with one historic preservation employee) that is being overtaken by developers, in a state with hundreds of threatened resources. How do you stage an intervention for a neglected building?

As the old house crumbles, the current owners of the property seem to have built up a spiffy business complex in back selling fireworks. I'm not a fan of fireworks, and it's not even legal for me to buy them, but I'd go in there and buy them out of Roman candles if it meant they would put a good new roof on the old tavern, and get some glass back in the broken windows. If I had the money, I'd buy it a roof myself. If the owners can't find a use for the Cross Keys and cannot care for it adequately, I would hope they might just seal it up as best they can against the elements, and find a new owner. It could be an incredible house museum, or study house, or (why not?) a tavern, or even a restored private home...if you don't mind being a few feet from a busy intersection.

Until then, it's an intriguing time capsule, containing secrets of the past until the elements prevail.


Harvey Kirk said...

Kate -

Thanks for the blog on the old tavern at Chrome. I share your angst over the condition of the structure and the continuous decay to which it most certainly being sujected. My family settled in the area in the early 1700s and this property was one of several owned by my ancestors many, many, many years ago. It was operated as a tavern by one of my ancestors and later by the family of a woman who married another ancestor, so my ties to the building are several. It long ago passed out of the family and others ran it as a tavern, and later as a hotel. I don't live in the area - I live in southern Virginia - so I only get to see it occasionally. I am researching our family for an historical narrative which I am now writing. I located the HABS photos too, and was thrilled and amazed to see the detail with which the interior was finished. It really is a work of art. It is only one of several old family properties in the area that is losing the fight to survive, or which is being changed, made over, etc. I wish I could buy it myself, but realism sets in. My only solace now is that I will someday be able to publish the family history and include a description of it and the HABS photos for posterity to appreciate.

Kate said...

Thanks for your input, Harvey - I'm sure this was very depressing for you to see on here! Your family history sounds fascinating.

Scott Hilaman said...

My fsmily family owned the tavern for 100 years ending in 1930. I have much info if interested. contact me ar for a written history of the house