RALPHO TOWNSHIP — While other amusement parks have imported classical American architecture into their Main Streets, Knoebels Amusement Resort has done quite the opposite.
In the 100 years since the first summer residence was built, the “Knoebels Cottage” has become the backbone for design at the park and continues to influence the look and feel of the growing resort.
The Knoebels Cottage design is identifiable by its low-pitched roof, white clapboard siding and multi-paned windows, which are often placed in rows. The cottages have a diminutive atmosphere, and even a multi-bedroom rental will have the feel of a dollhouse.
The style is omnipresent in the commercial buildings of the park. The Roaring Creek Saloon, which formerly housed roller skating and now features antique photos and magic shows, is encased in painted clapboard and features a low-pitched roof and rows of windows overlooking the creek. The clandestinely two-story Playland has updated its arcade games over the years but continues to maintain a partially white-shingled exterior, rows of windows and a low-pitched roof.
Brian Knoebel described the aesthetic as “the charm of Knoebels.”
“It’s something we talk about a lot,” he said, adding that as the park grows, the family is careful to maintain that feeling “…whether it’s through architecture or park benches or shade.”
Pamela W. Reilly, a historic preservation specialist for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, places the appearance of Knoebels into a category of vernacular tourism popular between the 1920s and 1940s.
“Knoebels Amusement Resort began in 1926 — just when cars were becoming more common and there was a push to develop touring routes and amenities for early road travelers,” Reilly said. “In that era cute little motel cottages began to spring up along popular touring roads.”
The story fits the history of Knoebels to a T — no pun intended. According to “Knoebels: An Amusement Park with a Heart,” Mr. and Mrs Russell Boyer, of Shamokin, built the first Knoebels cottage in 1917 after discovering the site while on a Sunday drive in their Model T Ford.
Additional cottages began popping up, some built by individuals and others constructed by the Knoebel family. Stacy Ososkie, park spokesperson, said the privately-owned cottages were built on leased land owned by Knoebels, which has first right of refusal if the owners choose to sell the cottages out of the family. The park also has say over construction on the land it leases and can veto changes, Ososkie said, though she was unsure if that ever happened.
At the same time Knoebels was finding its footing as a summer resort spot, the National Park Service was in the midst of a building craze. The style, colloquially referred to as “parkitecture” or “National Park Service rustic” sought to find the balance between providing amenities while fitting into the natural surrounding.
Reilly said the tourism buildings constructed privately during the era of the early days of Knoebels were more of a mix of picturesque and utilitarian.
The assessment makes sense, especially because the Knoebels family preferred to self-design buildings. The family lucked out in the 1940s when Jennings Knoebel, uncle to Dick Knoebel and a son of park founder Henry Knoebel, became an architect.
Jennings Knoebel infused a popular trend of postwar car culture into his design: novelty architecture. The idea behind novelty architecture is to design a building in a way that advertises its use and attracts passersby — like the Longaberger Company headquarters, which looks like a giant basket. Jennings Knoebel’s most notable example of this design is the Candy Apple Orchard, a large red apple where candy and caramel apples are sold.
Dick Knoebel credited his uncle, Pete Knoebel, with the park’s most prominent example of novelty architecture — the giant loaf of bread aptly named The Loaf. Pete Knoebel was a painter who trained at Yale, Dick Knoebel said, and he decided to aim his artist’s eye at what at the time was a shooting gallery.
“We like to do things uniquely,” Dick Knoebel said.
Asked how the idea of constructing a building that looked like a loaf of bread arose, Dick Knoebel said like most plans for the park, it came up around the family dinner table. The grander scheme was to make it a stand for a local woman to sell the fabulous pies she baked, but it didn’t work out to bring her into the park, he said.
“A lot of these things were discussed over grandma’s kitchen table,” he said.
Jennings Knoebel designed several other novelty architecture elements in the park, like the lighthouse near the covered bridge, but his legacy is more closely tied to buildings that retained the look of the Knoebels Cottage. Old photos of the soft serve ice cream stand that later grew into the Patio Grill show it covered in white clapboard siding. Casa de Refrescos and Kandy Korner have the same sloping roofline that give the buildings the feeling of a small scale.
That newly-constructed buildings fall in line with the historic architecture is a mix of conscious decision making and adaptive reuse. The Knoebel family love to recycle and retain objects long after they fall into disuse — behind the partition walls in the Roaring Creek Saloon is signage announcing the evening’s skate order and crates of well-worn roller skates.
“A lot of the pieces of the park have come from elsewhere,” Ososkie said.
Stony Gables, for example, was the first home of Dick Knoebel’s parents Lawrence and Margaret “Peg” Knoebel. As the park grew the family converted the home into a fudge and nut shoppe, and recently expanded it using a design that made the addition imperceptible.
The Old Mill, which dispenses hard ice cream, has its origins as a cabin in Port Trevorton owned by Dick Knoebel’s maternal grandparents. He said the building was cut into pieces and transported to its current location along Roaring Creek, where it was used as a rental cottage for many years. In 1973, the home was renovated into the ice cream stand, and at least one addition was placed on it as the park grew.
One of Dick Knoebel’s favorite adaptive reuses in the park is the General Store, a gift shop located next to the main office. Dick Knoebel said he was tapped to design the building based on materials the family acquired from the teardown of a furniture store in Catawissa. The floor and ceiling joists are 3 by 10 Hemlock beams 20 feet in length taken from the store. Other pieces of the building are also recycled: the floor was siding from an old house and the counters came from a teardown in Lykens.
The Haunted Mansion was also designed around recycled beams. Dick Knoebel said the family bought trusses spanning 70 feet, then needed to figure out what they could build with them. At first they thought about making the large building a skating rink, then decided on a dark ride, he said. The Haunted Mansion is a single story built under those beams, with a two-story facade to make it look like the tallest building in that area of the park.
Ososkie said the lumber yard and machine shop have played a key role in allowing employees to reuse materials. Discarded materials are taken to the shop where they are converted into other uses.
The lumber yard was especially essential to the construction of the log flume, Brian Knoebel said. He recalled that the family wanted to keep the trees in the area, so they sought an engineering firm to design the pathway of the flume around the tree trunks.
A few of the trees still needed to be removed, he said, so the lumber yard brought a sawmill down to the construction area. The cut trees were milled at the site and used to construct the flume station, he said.
By reusing the wood, the flume station blends into the surrounding forest. And though the building was constructed in the early 1990s, the station features the same low-pitched roof as the first cottages built along Roaring Creek.
“Even as the park grows we try to maintain the same look and feeling of the buildings,” Ososkie said.
Brian Knoebel said the family has the entryway from the parking lot targeted as a project area because it currently doesn’t have the historic vibe of the rest of the park. The area has been the site of major construction over the past two years and is the home of a new steel roller coaster and two modern commercial buildings.
Over the park’s seasonal closure, workers will construct one of its unique cobblestone water fountains in this area, “Just to prove to our guests we’re not going to be industrial,” Brian Knoebel said.
The water fountains are more than a mere decoration or amenity, he said. They harken the early days of the park by reminding guests of simpler times when people didn’t pay to purchase bottled water.
“We’re trying to remain charming,” Brian Knoebel said.