Honeymoon resort turned fledging casino
Heart-shaped bathtubs, shag carpeting that hid your ankles, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. That is how America knew the Poconos when it was the country’s go-to honeymoon destination after World War II.
Tourists had been arriving in the northeast Pennsylvania mountains ever since the 1830s when some of America’s first railroads brought wealthy Philadelphians and New Yorkers out of their dingy cities for clean, alpine air.
By the 1940s, however, roads had been constructed from the Eastern population centers and working class couples could afford a quick escape to the mountains as well. The first commercial ski areas opened in the Poconos in 1946 and the art of artificial snowmaking was soon perfected. Honeymoon cottages and resorts began popping up across the region.
None were bigger than Mount Airy Lodge. The original wood-and-stone lodge was raised in 1898 with eight rooms.
In 1936 it was a twelve-room boarding house run by John and Suzanne Martens. After the honeymoon era arrived Mount Airy mushroomed to more than 890 rooms spread across 1,200 acres. It was billed as “America’s Premier Honeymoon Hideaway.”
There was a 36-acre artificial lake out front with a generous sand beach. Inside big-name entertainers appeared in the Crystal Room every weekend. Newlyweds could hike, bike, ride horseback or take part in an endless stream of games and contests co-ordinated by a social staff of six. In the winter there was skiing and ice skating.
The go-go years began to dissipate in the 1980s. Vacationers who had automatically pointed the car towards the Poconos were now taking Caribbean cruises instead or taking advantage of cheap airfare.
The taste for good-natured tackiness changed. People weren’t even marrying anymore, they were “shacking up.”
By the 1990s Poconos resorts were in full retreat. The honeymoon era came to a dramatic end on November 3, 1999, the night before the Mount Airy Lodge was scheduled to be sold at foreclosure.
Emil Wagner, a nephew of the Martens, who had run the resort for the better part of fifty years, put a .38-caliber revolver to his head and squeezed the trigger. He could not go through with the final act of surrendering Mount Airy.
Oaktree Capital Management boarded the resort up and in 2004 sold the aging diva to Scranton landfill king Louis DeNaples. Confident he would be awarded one of the coveted five stand-alone gaming licenses, DeNaples razed the Mount Airy Lodge completely and began building a plush 188-room hotel and gaming facility atop the ghosts of the old resort.
In 2007, the $412 million casino opened.
Big Apple is a heavy target
In the past decade, several counties in the Poconos region have experienced explosive growth as the area has morphed into an exurban commuter community for New York City, 90 miles due east. Still, Mount Airy Casino and Resort is one of the few Pennsylvania gaming houses that is not counting on local patronage for sustenance.
The architects spared little expense on the rich hardwoods and terrazzo tile used to give Mount Airy a high-end feel unlike its Pennsylvania cousin racinos. Management projects more of an “upscale Vegas” vibe and it is one of only two of the state’s casinos to be awarded the American Automobile Association’s 4-Diamond award for casinos. Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem is the other.
Philadelphia and New York City remain Mount Airy’s biggest targets. When table games opened in 2010 management spent $2 million on advertising in the heavily saturated New York market where gamblers traditionally head for Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut and Atlantic City.
Mount Airy on the small side
Mount Airy Casino and Resort is in the grouping of four that comprise the state’s small casinos.
There are 72 table games and 1874 slot machines on the compact, rectangular casino floor. Its $186 million in revenues for fiscal year 2012-2013 exceeded only the two smallest casinos in Valley Forge and Presque Isle. That represents a drop of over 2% from the previous year.
Louis DeNaples: A rare find
Casino owner Louis DeNaples is unique among Pennsylvania’s gaming operators. He has no gaming experience, no background in the hospitality industry. He has no partners in the venture, all the money spent on the Mount Airy Casino and Resort is his own. He has no other gaming properties.
DeNaples got his start in business by purchasing a junked car for $18 and hauling it by hand back to his house. The journey took two days. He stripped the automobile of every useful part to sell. He used his profit to do it again and again until he had forged an empire in salvage in Northeast Pennsylvania.
In the 1980s he opened the Keystone Sanitary Landfill that was within easy reach of overflowing New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia garbage. Today the value of his coterie of businesses is valued at over $2 billion.
It has not always been a smooth ride for the self-made DeNaples.
He first spent time in the breakdown lane in 1978 when he was convicted of overcharging for clean-up operations after Hurricane Agnes devastated the region. His dealings with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board have been fraught with investigations and hearings due to allegations that DeNaples has lied to the board about ties to reputed organized crime figures.
DeNaples remains the gambling-license holder for Mount Airy Casino and Resort but he has turned over control of the operation to a daughter.
Mount Airy’s cozy poker room
Mount Airy opened its poker room in 2012 with 2004 World Series of Poker winner Cyndy Violette on hand as guest of honor.
The cozy room just off the casino entrance has 11 tables, the third fewest of the state’s casinos. In a typical month the room returns about $250,000 in revenues.
Mount Airy’s golf course
Unique among casinos in the eastern half of Pennsylvania, when gamblers want to stretch their legs at Mount Airy Casino and Resort they can take their bets outside to the replica themed golf course. Built in 1980, the golf course is the only link remaining to the glory times of the Mount Airy Lodge.
Back in 1965 writer Dan Jenkins had selected the 18 best golf holes in America for Sports Illustrated which turned it into a book. At Mount Airy, golf architect Hal Purdy interpreted each of those holes and put them into the Pocono Mountains. While playing the heavily tree-lined course you may recognize hole 12 at Augusta National (#9 at Mount Airy) or #18 at Pebble Beach Golf Links (#18 at Mount Airy, although the water is on the right and not the left).