The renaissance of Ligonier
Fifty years ago this week, Ligonier became the “biggest little town in the nation” when Arnold Palmer brought the Professional Golfers of America championship tournament to the Laurel Valley Golf Club. The Aug. 12-15, 1965 event was just what the town needed to move forward on major changes planned for the streetscape of Ligonier that made it what it is today.
Establishing a plan
After years of research and study that began in the late 1950s, a new master plan for the community of Ligonier was finally submitted to its borough council in 1962. Within the next three years, the community would witness the initiation of that plan, including the “colonialization” of the Ligonier Diamond.
The start of 1965 brought with it “the year of change.” A new “colonial post office” was in the planning stages as well as a recreational play field at the end of Fairfield Street as well as more off street parking lots.
“1965 can’t help but be one for the history books,” states Ligonier Echo editor Joseph Duval in a January, 1965 editorial. “All this is engendering a new spirit in our people and new hope in our businessmen. It will be one of the most momentous years for the Ligonier Valley since the British chased the French and Indians back to Fort Duquesne.”
This “great period of reconstruction” included redevelopment of a tract of land where the old Ligonier House stood on the Diamond along with the building that once housed the Valley Restaurant. The area was set be demolished to make room for a new post office.
Fort Ligonier Hotel suffered a fire in late 1964 and was set to be demolished. Both had served the community for more than 75 years as tourist resort destinations.
A new 34-room Fort Ligonier Motor Lodge was under construction along Route 30. But, there was more on the horizon for Ligonier in the months to follow.
Golf legend gets the ball rolling
In an unlikely chain of events, local sports legend Arnold Palmer stepped in to provide the jump start Ligonier needed to attract people from near and far to the Valley.
Palmer’s suggestion to bring the 1965 National PGA golf tournament to Ligonier seemed to be just what the community needed to get the reconstruction boom off the ground.
The decision to bring the tournament to Ligonier came about during an informal discussion, at the 1964 Masters Tournament in Augusta, between Palmer and Warren Cantrell, president of the Professional Golfers Association at the time.
“Why not bring it to my place,” Palmer was quoted saying during the discussion, according to a May 29, 1964, article in the Echo about the decision.
Palmer was a traveling pro for Laurel Valley Golf Club at the time and helped develop the design of the course that opened five years earlier in Ligonier.
“Arnold has a soft spot for Ligonier. The Laurel Valley course is always one of the three or four courses he always mentions,” said Doc Giffin assistant to Arnold Palmer. “He still comes back here for five months of the year. He loves the Laurel Highlands area. He supports the efforts of the local chamber of commerce.
With the new focus on tourism and attracting visitors to the area, community leaders saw a need to make improvements to the overnight accommodations. More than 15,000 visitor were expected to attend the tournament and modern hotel/motel space would need to be available. Two of the town’s Victorian-style landmark hotels were no longer a viable option.
A group of Pittsburgh businessmen, led by Palmer and Thomas P. Johnson, announced the construction of a new hotel on the Fort Ligonier Hotel site on East Loyalhanna Street.
Giffin said he was not surprised the project was completed so quickly.
“The PGA welcomed the opportunity to come to Ligonier,” Giffin said. “But there was not much in the way of housing and Arnold Palmer knew they would need a lot of rooms.”
Giffin said he was working with Palmer at the time and had no doubt the hotel would be built and open in time for the tournament.
“Arnie knows a lot of people. He has many friends who live in the area and were members at Laurel Valley Golf Club and Rolling Rock Club.”
Thomas G. Donald of Greensburg was the architect and Dill Construction Co. of Latrobe was the builder. Camelot Management Co. co-owners included Palmer, Johnson, Frank Romani, Richard B. Rodgers and John M. Ridilla.
Demolition of the old hotel began in January of 1965. Following an aggressive construction plan, the Holiday Inn opened its doors to guests six months later. The new facility had to be in full operation before the National PGA Tournament set for August that year and it was.
The 66-unit four story hotel featured a Colonial American motif to recognize Ligonier’s historic past.
Hotel site boasts long history
The hotel site had a long history of ownership from its beginning in 1890. Originally Frank’s Hotel, the victorian-style resort was also known as Ligonier Springs Hotel and Sanitarium, the Hoffman House and the Fort Ligonier Hotel before it was razed to build the Holiday Inn.
The Holiday Inn would change hands and names (Lord Ligonier Inn and Ramada Inn) again through the next 50 years.
Rose and Roger Alms of Greensburg purchased the (Lord Ligonier Inn) property in 1992.
In 2002, the Alms’ daughters, Deborah Fox of Greensburg and her sister, Andrea Cuda of Latrobe, purchased the hotel, now known as the Ramada Ligonier.
“We were hoteliers. Our parents owned other properties, but they loved this place,” Cuda said. “They came to Ligonier when they were dating and loved this hotel. They had a fondness for it.”
Cuda said her parents decided to purchase the property and try to bring it back to life.
“It was in terrible shape when they purchased it,” Cuda said. “Everything was original and in bad shape.”
The rooms, restaurant and lounge were completely gutted. It cost $2 million to renovate it. Cuda said it was franchised with Ramada standards.
“With today’s travelers booking online, there is a comfort level of a known brand name,” Cuda said. “Ramada has been well known since the ’60s.”
The sisters said they grew up in the hotel business, working alongside their parents.
“We were working here with our parents, when they said they wanted to retire and sell the property,” Cuda said. “Deborah said we should buy it. We put so much time and work into the hotel.”
“They were delighted we wanted it,” Fox said. “They enjoy walking through the hotel to see what new changes we have made.”
A new elevator has been installed and the rooms feature the newest technology for the keyless entry system.
“We continue to make renovations every year,” Cuda said.
A new pool was installed and the bar area is now a bistro.
Most recently the guest rooms were upgraded including new bedding, granite sinks and a refrigerator in each room.
“People who come here expect to have a great experience,” Cuda said. “We offer a modern hotel in an historic district.”
The sisters say they work well together.
“We are the best partners but also best friends,” Fox said.
“We each have a completely different responsibilities here. Deborah handles the operations while I handle sales and marketing,” Cuda said.
Cuda said they have found a balance between being family and working professional hoteliers.
“But family is always first,” Cuda said.
Sally Wecksler, assistant general manager at the Ligonier Ramada, remembers when the Holiday Inn opened its doors in 1965. In fact, she worked there at the time.
“I worked at the front desk in 1965. I gave tours of the new hotel,” Wecksler said. “Every kid in Ligonier worked here that summer.”
She said she met many celebrities that summer including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Arnold Palmer.
“All of the golfers stayed here,” she said. “Back in those days they had bellhops and hostesses.”
It was exciting at the hotel during the PGA tournament.
“Many famous people were here. Mr. Palmer generated a lot of excitement here himself,” she said. “He is a really nice man. He always has time for his fans. Anybody can walk up and talk to him.”
This sisters did not plan to mark the building’s 50th year, since the hotel has only been in their family for the past 23 years. They did however find several pieces of original advertising that they plan to display in the hotel.
“We noticed on the advertisement that we still have the same telephone number, other than the area code,” Cuda said.
Deborah A. Brehun is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-238-2111 or [email protected].