Vintage diner to help feed the Lincoln Highway Experience
The Lincoln Highway Experience transportation museum will offer an added treat for visitors when it serves them dessert in the restored 1938 diner that is the central feature of a new wing at the Unity attraction.
Museum staff, who invited volunteers and the media for a preview Tuesday, hope remaining details, such as hand railings, soon will be in place so the expanded facility can have its public debut in early July.
While other local historical attractions focus on frontier times, “We’ll be telling a different part of history,” said Olga Herbert, executive director of the nonprofit Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, which operates the museum on Route 30 eastbound near Route 217.
Doubling the museum’s display area, the 3,574-square-foot addition provides space for visitors to view structures that recall the roadside services travelers could enjoy in the years before the nation developed its network of limited-access highways.
“We welcome visitors to experience vintage artifacts from the Lincoln Highway era and get up close and personal to them, the main one being the diner,” Herbert said. “It was considered the Cadillac of diners.”
Measuring 47 feet long, the diner features two booths and seating for 16 more on bar stools reupholstered in red leather similar to their original covering. It also features original tile flooring, a marble counter and stained glass windows.
“The diner is amazing,” said Cathy Worrall, visiting from Fishers, Indiana, while younger family members cooled off at the nearby Idlewild and Soak Zone park.
“I think this is really going to appeal to a younger generation,” Worrall’s husband, Phil, said of the expanded museum. “Our grandsons would love this.”
The diner restoration cost about $500,000 and was made possible through Federal Highway Administration funding.
The Serro family operated the diner near the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange in Irwin from 1938 to 1958. It was purchased and modified by the Rolka family, which moved it to Youngwood and renamed it The Willow. The Sen. John Heinz History Center purchased the deteriorating eatery in 1990 and donated it to the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor in 2004.
Adding to the museum’s period atmosphere are the facade of a filling station and a restored 1939 tourist cabin that once stood at Routes 30 and 259 in Ligonier Township.
“We have it set up as if visitors are touring the Laurel Highlands, with a map of Pennsylvania,” Herbert said of the cabin. “We have a vintage Brownie camera, an old radio, everything that was around in the late 1930s and early 1940s.”
That includes background music from the period.
Several vintage gasoline pumps, restored neon signs and a 1937 Packard donated by Jeff Evans of Lewisburg are other highlights of the new museum wing.
Displayed in a room that connects with the existing building are license plates from each of the states located along the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway and a 1918 photo of Kingston Dam, located nearby on Loyalhanna Creek.
Construction of the addition and a new drip-irrigation septic system cost just over $1 million, drawing upon funds from foundation, corporate and private sources.
The project provided an opportunity to relocate the museum gift shop to the wash house of the site’s original 1815 Johnston House, which had been used for storage.
The room vacated by the shop has been transformed into a “Penny for your Tots” arcade for preschoolers.
Herbert explained each child is supplied with 10 Lincoln pennies that can be deposited to play various games including “Cruise the Corridor,” where kids can race wooden cars along tracks that reflect the hills and valleys traversed by Pennsylvania’s early highways.
WiFi is available in the new wing, where tables and chairs donated from a turnpike service plaza expand total seating to 60.
Once the addition opens, the museum will operate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The $14 admission fee ($10 for group tours) includes coffee and a slice of pie in the diner. Visitors can add small or large servings of ice cream for a few dollars more.
Visit LHHC.org for museum updates, including a date for opening of the new wing.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.