The Downfall of the Bush House

Credit: Quakertown Borough

Ivyanna Barndt, Staff Writer

The Bush House Hotel, built-in 1850 by William Bush, was home to economic growth, wealthy businessmen, and the highly regarded. The hotel and bar were built through the transgression of the railroad through Quakertown, Pennsylvania, and the old Richland Centre. Through the growth of the town through its newfound connection to Philadelphia, many stayed at the comforting hotel located on Broad Street, across from the Quakertown/Reading Train Station. While the hotel rooms shared one bathroom, the rooms were still known as regal and an easily suitable location for short and long-term stays. In addition to the hotel, there was a bar and lobby with an ornate fireplace, hosting a predominantly male crowd who enjoyed events like free lunch-ins, business transactions, and deals. The lower part of the hotel, facing Broad Street, was a fraction of the other part of the building, even featuring the town’s only ballroom. Due to these features, the Bush House was a major area for socialites but also retained its functionality. 

Within its property, there was a yard proving home for the cattle that were shipped to Quakertown and distributed to neighboring farms. At its prime, the Bush House provided land for 25 cows, 100 hogs, and 50 horses. This is a stark difference from what can be seen in Quakertown’s “downtown” area today with buildings closely together,even connected. In the hotel’s first years, there was also plenty of room for parking as guests would often come straight off of the trains or use their own forms of transportation to travel about. When interviewed, a local historian, Richard “Dick” Helm, recounted his younger days in the 1960s by saying, “Even in the 60s, my uncle was an executive at the railroad… and up until the 70s or so, it was very desirable to be there,” even saying later on in the interview it was “the place to be.” He also recounted the old hotel rooms, saying his uncle stayed in a “really nice, beautiful room.” 

Many believe the Bush House saw its decline in the late 1970s to the 1990s when Quakertown faced an extreme amount of growth, changing business prospects, and the decline of farm and agricultural land in the area. With the decline of the railroad and cattle being moved through vehicles like trucks and trailers, the hotel lost its initial purpose and functionality. Our “downtown” was no longer a place of new individuals and their promises coming into the area, but rather travelers and business were conducted around places near highways like Route 309. Richland Centre, which was the area east of the railroad tracks and beyond, became Richlandtown, and the area of Center City was broken down into downtown and uptown. 

Eventually, the original bar closed and the ballroom was used less and less as more large areas like newer ballrooms gained traction in the Upper Bucks County Area, where Quakertown is located. Through time, the Bush House saw more residents in apartment settings, rather than the nightly, transit setting. The Bar and Ballroom’s days of activity and better use had passed and the lively scene of the once-hotel slowed down.

Through time, the Bush House was featured in a few news articles, mostly in police blotters and records of arrests. The publicity of the reports led the once-esteemed building to gain a negative stigma in the public’s eye. Attention was gained even more when on April 26th of 2018 a fire tore through parts of the building, ultimately killing the elderly Marcella Heitz, who lived in the apartment where many authorities said the fire started. The town gained a new understanding of the Bush House that day- it was a last resort before homelessness for many. The Philadelphia Inquirer stated, “Community members sprang into action, stitching together a network of aid for the 25 residents temporarily displaced by the blaze. They came to see what the boarding house’s tenants have long known — that in a town toeing the line between suburban and rural, it exists as a rare, vital foundation for those looking to claw their way out of misfortune.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also conducted an interview with a member of the Quakertown Community Outreach, a volunteer group dedicated to helping the homeless population of the Quakertown Area, who stated, “For a lot of these people, this [The Bush House] is the last stop before the street.” Still to this day, the parts of the building affected by the fire are still not in use or in many repairs. 

Though it was listed on numerous different online real estate company websites in an attempt to regain its popularity and give the house another chance, the listings were pulled on November 10th, just six days before its newest fatalistic occurrence. 

Now, none of the houses is in use, in fact, it is currently condemned. While the property was bought in 2004 for just $348,000, Tom Skiffington, the owner, was asking for $5.6 million. On Wednesday, November 10th, the Quakertown Borough made the decision to evacuate the sixty-four residents of the Bush House, deeming the building inhabitable within a condemnation. The condemnation of the building came after many complaints from residents and the public sparked an inspection under the 2009 International Property Maintenance Code of Quakertown Borough. Resulting from the inspection, specifically section 108 of the code, the building was deemed “Unfit for human occupancy.” Just some of the code violations included Unsafe Structures, Unsafe Equipment, and Dangerous Structure or Premises. 

A bed bug and German roach infestation were also apparent throughout the walls, fire safety system, and many other features of the building and its assets. The bugs could be caused by many different factors, including heavy debris, food wastes, and just overall clutter. The building is recommended to have a liquid and heat extermination program where evacuation and cleaning are a necessity.  The once historical walls of the building providing shelter between rooms for people of nearly two centuries would need to be taken down. 6abc even reported Douglas Wilhelm, Quakertown’s Fire Marshall stating, “The building would have to be taken down to the bare studs, and a combo of chemicals and heat would have to be used to take care of that infestation.” After evacuation, the residents were asked to take showers within the Decontamination Trailer, change into clean and dry clothes they were given, and be medically evaluated. Lastly, the evacuees were moved to the evacuation center to be re-evaluated medically, receive food and water, and then find their next steps. For many, this looks like seeking assistance from County and governmental non-profits agencies and organizations that deal with providing housing or the necessities. 

It is undeniable the closing of the historic Bush House has rattled the Quakertown Community and other surrounding areas. A connecting business, Tijuana Tacos, was even closed too. Many news outlets, neighborhood pages, and newspapers have commented on this recent event. Through the sharing of thoughts and pictures, the Bush House will have to make a dramatic change to renew its original reputation, with many community members not forgetting about the arrests, fires, and pests. The Bush House will see a lot of progress in its indisputable need for change and improvement in ensuring the safety of others. Especially today, the changes the original hotel has seen are especially drastic and evident as a downfall.