A Bubbly History of the Heart-Shaped Hot Tub
Penthouse—the most prominent authority on such matters—once called it “a sexual Disneyland.” It housed a gift shop containing adult novelty items. A stark-naked statue of Apollo greeted visitors in the lobby entrance. A “social director” was on hand to foster banter among couples and make off-color jokes to loosen their libidos. Its rooms were wall-carpeted and mirrored.
It was Cove Haven, and for decades it was the premier Poconos resort destination for newlyweds across the northeast. Its popularity was chiefly attributed to two things: the marketing acumen of co-founder Morris B. Wilkins, and the iconic, charmingly tacky hot tub he designed that was shaped like a heart.
Born to Russian immigrants in 1925, Wilkins was an unlikely savior of the honeymoon hospitality industry. After a stint as a submariner in World War II, the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania native started working as an electrician. Business went well until Hurricane Diane swept up his office space and equipment in 1955, leveling all of his material goods. Settling in as a freelancer, he and pal Harold “Obie” O’Brien were working on renovations for a Poconos-area hotel when they both noticed the accommodations were absolutely awful. The men believed they could do better, so they purchased an 18-room resort, the Hotel Pocopaupac in Lakeville, in 1958.
Since the end of the war, gas shortages had led to more and more newlyweds taking the shorter trip to the Poconos—a four-county area about the size of Delaware—rather than Niagara Falls. What was missing was a sense of levity or fun. Wilkins and O’Brien changed the name of the hotel to Cove Haven and promptly began renovating the property so that it might appeal to the increasingly provocative tastes of 1960s couples. Ostentatious accents replaced neutral colors; the room, he believed, would become the star attraction for those seeking a reservation.
But Wilkins needed time. When business was slow, he’d conserve electricity by holding business meetings in the dark. And despite his ability to recognize how hospitality would need to change, it took a few years for him to figure out exactly how.
According to “Honest” Phil Policare, Cove Haven's "Chief Excitement Officer," Wilkins and O’Brien had their epiphany one night in 1963, when the two were struggling to cart a round hot tub down a flight of stairs. In order to make the turn at the bottom, the men temporarily pushed in one side of the flexible material and noticed it resembled a heart. Other accounts mention that Wilkins dreamed up the notion in the middle of the night, sketching a heart over a concrete floor.
The Sweetheart Tub was tiled in red, comfortable enough for two, and featured mirrors on the walls. Word of mouth quickly spread, as did Wilkins's particular design aesthetic. Soon, Cove Haven was home to guests—couples only—who came to sightsee the attractions in their quarters: circular or heart-shaped beds, multi-level rooms, and private swimming pools.
Eager to expand, the partners sold Cove Haven to Caesars Resorts in 1969. (O’Brien passed away five years later in a plane crash.) Wilkins promptly opened two more Poconos-area resorts, just in time for an explosion of popularity after the heart-shaped tub was photographed for a 1971 Life magazine spread about the opening of Interstate 80. The exposure was so positive that Wilkins had to borrow $10,000 the following week just so that he had enough liquid cash to print more resort brochures.
That single photo in Life helped make the heart-shaped tub synonymous with honeymoon accommodations, encapsulating everything anyone would ever need to know about the atmosphere in the region. As Wilkins watched his Poconos empire grow through the next few decades, he became known as the innovator behind the beautifully kitschy newlywed experience.
With the success of the heart-shaped tub driving business, Wilkins came up a more ambitious idea: He wanted to install a 7-foot-tall champagne glass in his suites that could double as a whirlpool. It would be novel, look terrific in advertising, and create a little bit of mystery: without a ladder, how could couples even get in?
Wilkins's financiers at Caesars weren’t interested. They dismissed the idea as silly and let it percolate in the hotelier's head for nearly a decade before giving in. Debuting in 1984, the champagne glass whirlpool became another Poconos and Cove Haven trademark, appearing to be balanced on a thin stem while couples marinated in the bubbly water. Rooms featuring the glass were booked as far as 18 months out. (The secret to getting in was simple: the living room where it was located was sunken, and guests would climb in from the second-floor bedroom.)
Business continued booming through the 1980s. Rooms went for $380 for two nights, and Wilkins was hailed as a hospitality legend. Heart-shaped everything seemed to pervade the Poconos, with a quarter of its 16,000 beds cut into the novelty design.
Then airline travel got cheaper, and Vegas got wiser. As airfares went down and rooms in other destination locations began to resemble the Wilkins model, attendance dropped. Several Poconos-area resorts were closed by 1999, the year Wilkins retired.
Today, roughly 437 heart-shaped hot tubs remain in the three Cove Haven resorts, with an untold number installed around the country. While Wilkins had managed to patent his champagne whirlpool, he was unsuccessful in obtaining the same protection for the tub. For $2395, anyone can have one ready to be installed in their own personal lover’s retreat.
Wilkins died at age 90 in 2015. Though he left behind four children, it could be argued he was responsible for many, many more.
"I don’t know how many babies we’ve conceived here," Wilkins told The Washington Post in 1988. "It must be an army."