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Boo! Lubavitch Shoo Away Ghosts of the Past
The second-floor balcony of the historic General Wayne Inn appears unsteady. And the porch below - blocked off by chain-link fence and yellow police tape - looks as if it had buckled in the wake of some natural disaster.
The Merion Station building that first opened in 1704 is suffering from age and neglect; the property has been vacant since the last restaurant housed there closed in 2002.
But that's all about to change.
According to Rabbi Shraga Sherman, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of the Main Line, come next spring, the site will be all spruced up and open to the community as the Center for Jewish Life at the General Wayne Inn.
This move, he said, will link thousands of years of Jewish tradition with a site steeped in American history, and just a wee bit of supernatural lore.
Once the place is refurbished, daily worship services will take place in what is now an empty and sparsely lit hall; the large colonial-era fireplace will be converted into an ark to store the Torah scrolls, he said.
But how can he be so confident when the place looks like such a mess?
"It's structurally sound," explained Sherman, adding that the outdoor balcony was an obvious exception. The biggest logistical issues involve the renovation of the electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems.
Two years ago, the growing congregation, which currently meets in a storefront location in nearby Bala Cynwyd, purchased the storied ale house. The plan is for it to become a synagogue, Hebrew school, administrative office - even an upscale kosher restaurant.
Since buying the place, Sherman and his congregants have leapt a number of hurdles, including hearings on parking issues, permit applications and a fundraising effort that has yielded $700,000 of the needed $1.5 million to complete the project.
The work has been under way for about a month, with crews clearing away remnants from the many restaurants that have operated at the site over the years, including a faux wood bar that took up a large swath of space on the ground floor.
"This will be a spiritual epicenter - a lot of goodness will come from this place," said Sherman.
Originally opened as the Wayside Inn and later renamed after Revolutionary War Gen. Anthony Wayne, the stone structure by no means has a gray history. Once serving as the location for a post office founded by Benjamin Franklin, the building is rumored to be the final resting place of a Hessian soldier named Wilhelm, who's buried in the basement. Some believe his ghost still haunts the inn.
Some even claim that Edgar Allan Poe wrote parts of "The Raven" there. And nine years ago, in a Poe-like twist, then inn-owner Guy Sileo Jr. just so happened to murder his business partner, James Webb, for which he's serving a life sentence.
Sherman remains undaunted by the checkered history.
"With a mezuzah on every door, the ghost will be doing his best to be let out of this building," he said. "Or else we're going to convert him - and count him in the minyan."