When it opened in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, The Nittany Lion Inn’s rooms rented for $3.50 per night and included, among other things, a “completely equipped pin cushion.” During the past 79 years the Inn’s offerings—and size—have grown considerably, and the hotel has played host to some famous guests.
It’s hard to imagine a time when State College was short of hotel rooms. But in 1928, the area had only two hotels with about 90 rooms total and struggled to accommodate the increasing numbers of people drawn to the area by Penn State. To help meet the growing need, Penn State decided to build what would be called the College Inn on prime real estate bordered by the new Rec Hall to the south, Beaver Field to the east, and the two-lane, concrete Lakes-to-Sea Highway (U.S. Route 322) to the west. During construction, the University’s trustees decided on a different name: The Nittany Lion Inn.
The Nittany Lion Inn that opened for business on May 5, 1931, offered basic lodging and hearty fare in its dining room. Though the rates seem low by today’s standards, some early patrons found the Inn a bit pricey. A University dean’s assistant wrote complaining of being charged a dollar per head for a breakfast meeting that included grapefruit, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with cream, fried ham, eggs and bran muffins. The father of the bride at the first known wedding at the Inn—in 1933—balked at the $100 bill for the reception. Just a year after opening, the Inn lowered many of its prices, some by as much as half.
The 75 rooms of the original Inn nearly doubled the number of hotel rooms in the community. Waiters, maids and cooks lived on site—as was the custom at many hotels of that era—and earned modest wages of $25 to $50 per month. Managers and their families also lived at the hotel through the 1970s. Long before “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” premiered on The Disney Channel, Bob Lee spent his early years living at the Inn, where his father served as general manager for 26 years, until 1958. Lee says his mother liked telling the story of the time, as a toddler, he escaped just before a bath and ran down the hall in his “birthday suit.” Fortunately, a guest intercepted him and returned him to his mother. The guest? Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was staying at the Inn during her 1953 visit to campus. Other famous guests include Jack Nicholson, Billy Joel, Britney Spears, Danny DeVito, Louis Armstrong, Robert Frost and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After two additions and several remodeling efforts, The Nittany Lion Inn today offers nearly three times the number of rooms—223—as when it opened. Many traditions remain while others have evolved to meet changing tastes and times. A big basket of apples for guests and visitors still sits near the entrance and the Inn remains a hub for the Penn State Alumni Association’s Traditional Class Reunions held each June. Blue-and-white-clad fans pack the place on football weekends, even though the stadium hasn’t been next door since 1960. Wait staff, housekeepers and managers no longer “live in” but remain dedicated to providing top-notch service and accommodations, said Jim Purdum ’77, who started at the Inn in 1989 and now serves as general manager of Penn State’s hospitality services.
Memorable Milestones in The Nittany Lion Inn’s history:
1931: The Nittany Lion Inn, “A Real New England Inn,” opens, doubling the number of hotel rooms in the area.
1948: Penn State takes over management of the Inn from the New York-based Treadway Corporation.
1951: The first expansion doubles The Nittany Lion Inn’s capacity to 150 rooms.
1955: The University’s hotel and restaurant management programs establish a partnership with the Inn, resulting in practical experience opportunities for students.
1967: The Inn receives a liquor license but managers decide to “dispense” alcohol only with meals. Legend holds that the first drink served was a whiskey sour on the rocks, ordered by a nun.
1970: Major redecoration of public spaces and guest rooms begins, including adding air conditioning, color televisions and “other modern amenities” to every room.
1972: The Pride, a small cocktail lounge, opens in the lower lobby.
1992: A major expansion adds 112 guest rooms and new public spaces, including banquet facilities accommodating up to 500 people.
1993: A March blizzard strands guests and staff in the Inn for several days.
2000: The National Trust for Historic Preservation names The Nittany Lion Inn one of 145 Historic Hotels of America for preserving its historic integrity.
2003: Longtime Nittany Lion Inn general manager Lou Silvi (1958–1977) dies, leaving $1 million to establish a scholarship supporting students in Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management.
2007: The Nittany Lion Inn becomes 100 percent smoke free.
2010: Centre County boasts more than 3,400 rooms—from full-service hotels like The Nittany Lion Inn and The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel to bed & breakfast rooms in private homes.
In honor of The Nittany Lion Inn’s 75th anniversary, “Hospitality Happenings,” the quarterly newsletter of Penn State Hospitality Services (which runs both The Nittany Lion Inn and The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel), included stories on the Inn’s history. Download the complete series.
More information on The Nittany Lion Inn.
Learn more about Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management.