One of the many pictures decorating the walls at the Rathskeller is a photograph of Timothy Leary, the psychologist who told people to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”
Leary went to the Skeller many years ago after debating G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate fame, at Penn State. Bar owner Duke Gastiger said Leary collected Americana and wanted to buy one of the bar’s tables that was chiseled with customers’ names.
Leary didn’t get to leave with a table, but Gastiger said they’d send him one.
“We did," Gastiger said. "We packed it up and sent it to him, and he mailed us a beautiful note back — and a check for a dollar for the table.”
Both the check and handwritten note are in a frame with the picture of Leary.
“Those are the kind of things. It’s just … It’s hard to replace a lot of those of things," Gastiger said.
The All-American Rathskeller, which would have celebrated its 85th anniversary next year, is expected to close instead. New property owners took over the building at the corner of College Avenue and Pugh Street this summer. Those owners, the Herlochers, said there will be a new tenant where the Skeller is.
Gastiger said he met with the Herlochers in June. He thought he was going to be able continue renting the space for the Skeller and his restaurant, Spats.
The Herlocher property includes a few other neighboring stores and apartments too.
“We thought — this is the perfect partnership," Gastiger said. "They had no plans to raze the building. They wanted us as tenants. All our neighbor tenants, who we’ve been friends with for years, were still going to be here. It seemed like it was a match made in heaven.”
Gastiger said they met again in October. He thought it was to negotiate a lease. Instead, he said, the Herlochers told him they had new tenants and that Gastiger couldn’t afford the market rates they needed to charge. He currently pays a little bit more than $5,000 a month in rent for both spaces.
“Whether I could afford it or not, at least I should have been afforded the opportunity to say, ‘No, I can’t afford it.’ I never had that chance," Gastiger said.
The Herlochers did not return calls seeking comment. They did say in a Facebook post that attempts to resolve the issue of a lease were unsuccessful, and that their offer to buy the business was turned down.
Gastiger said the Herlochers’ offer was just for the liquor license.
"There was never an offer to buy the business,” he said.
Now, Gastiger said, he and his wife, Monica, and the employees are moving ahead like they need to close.
“How much time does it take to close a business that’s been around for 85 years?”
The Skeller bills itself as the oldest continually operating bar in the state. Gastiger was a bartender there in the early 1970s. and bought it in 1985.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of alumni and visitors that come through our doors every year," he said. "Spats as well. We just celebrated our 30th year in Spats.”
The Skeller is filled with notable memorabilia including photographs of Penn State football teams. The dimly bit bar was also the home to case days – attempts to set records for drinking the most cases of beer.
Gastiger plans to find homes for the bar memorabilia. In the meantime, customers have been dropping by to have a last drink and a final look.
Gene Humilovich is a 1969 Penn State grad who lives in State College. He was having lunch there on a recent day.
“I still remember the booth I sat in on my 21st birthday," Humilovich said. "When I turned 50, my wife and I came down and sat at the same booth. Those kinds of things just go on and on and on. The place doesn’t change, you know.”
One thing that has changed over the years are the men’s urinals. Gastiger said when the old tough urinals were being taken out and replaced, there were people who wanted to buy the old ones.
“One very famous alum actually has the trough as a planter in his backyard right now,” Gasiger said.
He said he couldn't say who it is.
Other favorites include the Rathskeller clock behind the bar. Customers make offers to buy that.
Susan Young is closing in on her on 21st year working there. She’s not a typical bar employee. Young is a professor of education who works there one day a week — for fun.
“We’re a tight knit group here. It’s going to be tough, tough, tough to say goodbye. I am truly heartbroken. Some people say ‘Oh, it’s just a bar, it’s just a dive.’ It’s so much more than that," Young said. "It’s a tradition.”
Gastiger said after 33 years, he thought he would run the Skeller and Spats for another four or five years. After that, he and his wife thought they could sell the businesses to someone who would keep operating them.
For now, he said he appreciates the hundreds of messages of support.
“Thank you Penn State. Thank you community. Thank you for all the people who have sent kind messages,” Gastiger said.
Gastiger said they plan to recognize that support from the community. He said he’s also looking at some type of celebration of life for staff who used to work there.
The Gastigers announced on Facebook that Jan. 27 will be the last day of business for both the Skeller and Spats Cafe.