The Conference Center on the Undeground Railroad

I’m staying tonight in a new hotel in Lancaster, PA, that was built around a couple of historic houses, one of which was apparently a station on the Underground Railroad. The houses are literally incorporated into the hotel and conference center in a very strange way; one house kinda just sits in the lobby of the hotel, and the other’s basement is exposed through glass, where signage hints that there was a tunnel from the house to a local tavern that was used to hide African Americans on the run from slavery.

The houses are part of the Stevens and Smith Historic Site, and a $20 million “educational and interprative complex” is planned for the site, but so far, what they have is a couple of odd exhibits in an otherwise standard convention center.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I guess it’s good they didn’t tear these houses down, but it feels so casual and disrespectful and out of context. I am just picturing convention-goers exiting the “Freedom Hall” (I swear, that’s the name of the conference room across from the Underground Railroad exhibit) after some mind-numbing keynote speech by a horrid motivational speaker or a big-shot in the eastern Pennsylvania widget industry. They’ve got their badges around their necks, they’re checking their voice mail or looking through their goodie bags to see if there’s at least a decent pen or something, and oh gee, look at that brick cistern terrified people used to hide in a few hundred years ago. Yeah, cool, is there going to be an open bar at WidgetCo’s event tonight? (Or, in my case, gee, weird, let me take a couple of cell phone pictures and go back to the room to do email.)

To be fair, it’s just opened and there is more work to be done. And this is a vast improvement over destroying it altogether as has been done too often to historic places like this. But, it’s … strange.

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