Thomas Baker cast his walker aside Wednesday morning, gripped the podium, and talked about what it was like living in an apartment where taking a shower involved bodily risk and thugs tried to break in more than once.
All that changed earlier this year, Baker said, when he moved into the Molly Pitcher Senior Apartments in downtown Carlisle.
“I am, by far, one of the most blessed people,” Baker, 66, told a hushed audience gathered to mark completion of the $2.4 million final phase of the former hotel’s conversion into affordable senior housing. The building includes units designed to meet the needs of mobility-impaired people, such as Baker.
“To me, it’s a palace,” Baker said.
Thanks to a public-private partnership, the fourth and fifth floors of that South Hanover Street palace now include an additional six one-bedroom and two two-bedroom apartments.
“Safe, decent, affordable, dignified. That’s why we do this,” said Ben Laudermilch, executive director of the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.
The apartments are open to people 62 and older, with rents starting at $650 for a one-bedroom unit.
While built in 1900 as the Carlisle Hotel, the five-story structure is best remembered in the community as the Molly Pitcher Hotel, the name it was given nearly two decades later.
Its glitzy lounge and spacious dining room were the setting for many community functions over the years, like one borough council member Linda Cecconello recalled attending in 1973.
The hotel soon entered a new and troubling phase of its existence, as a rooming house.
As a Salvation Army volunteer, Cecconello delivered meals to residents, in what was a far cry from the stylish venue many had known.
“I remember climbing the steps and thinking, ‘oh, my Lord,'” Cecconello said.
“Well, it was a roof over people’s heads, I’ll give that credit to them,” she added.
Laudermilch didn’t mince words.
“It was also a dive bar, a discotheque and a flop house, among many other uses,” he said, describing “relative squalor.”
Work on the initial renovation project began in 2001.
That $3.3 million initiative culminated in December 2007 with the opening of nine handicapped-accessible units for low-income senior citizens.
It would take several years before the authorities were able to secure all necessary funding for conversion of the top floors, including $260,258 in tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and $2.2 million in financing from Orrstown Bank, among other sources.
Orrstown Senior Vice President Jeffrey Gayman pointed out that his bank, which also provided $1.7 million for the first phase of work, was founded in 1919, the same year the building became the Molly Pitcher Hotel.
“When Ben approached us about doing Phase II, and finishing the work we had started with Phase I, there was no question,” Gayman said.
Laudermilch said the challenges of renovating a century-old building also added to the length of the project compared with new construction. He pointed to the recent completion of another Cumberland County affordable housing project, the 35-unit Shepherd’s Crossing in Hampden Township, in just three years.
“There was a little bit of pain in this process,” he said of Molly Pitcher.
That pain included temporary loss of parking and other inconveniences for existing residents and commercial tenants.
In the end, however, he and others see the final outcome as worth the pain.
“It’s a tremendous story. It’s historic preservation at its finest,” said Kerry Kirkland, central regional director for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
“It’s the beginning of a lot of great things that are going on in Carlisle,” Kirkland added.
That great beginning relied on a range of public and private agencies.
In addition to involvement by the authorities, PHFA, DCED, Orrstown, and Cumberland Senior Housing Associates, Tippetts Weaver Architects Inc. of Lancaster was the architect and The Tuckey Cos. was general contractor.
Also, Laudermilch said, management at the Comfort Suites across the street helped provide temporary housing for residents during some of the disruption.
“It just takes so many great folks involved in these projects to make them come to fruition,” he said.
For Baker, Molly Pitcher is — he hopes — the last place he will call home.
“I don’t ever want to move again,” he said.