The real early history of the Hotel Saranac

Eleanor Munn knew everyone in Saranac Lake and, naturally, everyone knew Eleanor. She was Business Manager and Clerk of the Board of Education for the Saranac Lake Central School District for 20 years.

Now, as we nervously wait for Fred Roedel and his family to tell us the deal has closed on their purchase of the Hotel Saranac, here is a first person history of some of what that hotel has been through.

Eleanor gave a talk at the Brown Bag luncheon at the Saranac Lake Free Library (where she worked as a volunteer into her 90s) on Nov. 30, 1989 and told about her first job out of high school, which turned into 12 years at the Hotel Saranac. She graduated from switchboard operator to manager.

The Hotel then practiced race discrimination, went into bankruptcy and then later showed a profit for the first time during World War II.

The Hotel was constructed in 1927, a big year for Saranac Lake 100 rooms and baths and advertised as the most modern, fireproof hotel this side of New York City; the new high school was built on Petrova Avenue; the Paul Smith’s Electric Light, Power and Railroad Company building was constructed on Main Street, now the bio-tech facility; Radio Station WNBZ turned on the microphones for the first timeand that wonderful little Saranac Lake PR booklet titled ‘Meet the Town’ was published for the first time.

Following are quotes from a flawlessly typed 1,000-word manuscript that Eleanor used for her presentation.

“Scopes and Feustmann were local architects who designed the hotel. The central entrancearcade lobby opened straight through to Academy Street. People loved to duck into the arcade coming from the churches, especially in the winter months. As one walked through the arcade looking on one side was a beauty shop, a barber shop, a dress shop, Phil Perry’s Smoke Shop and the rooms of the Saranac Lake Men’s Club along with the windows into the dining room and the entrance to the upstairs lobby.

“Let me stop here to tell you that many people had invested in the Hotel Saranac Corporation. When the Wall Street crash happened in 1929 the aftershock hit here in the early thirties, small investors lost everything and the hotel went through bankruptcy.

“The Coffee Shop with a completely equipped soda fountain and the bar could be entered from the street. Let’s step into the bar. The walls were hand-painted by Gilmer Petroff who graduated from the local high school. He was very talented and was commissioned to depict the characters and tell the story of Treasure Island written by Robert Louis Stevenson who spent six months here in quest of better health.

“The front of the hotel to the right, facing the entrance, was a dress shop, a lingerie shop owned and operated by Ruth Disco, next a small flower shop owned by Helen Archer and on the corner a drugstore, Baber’s Pharmacy. Rounding the corner onto Academy Street we find Thomas P. Ward Insurance and the Mountain Gas Company Offices.”

Eleanor gets a job

“About this time I graduated from the local high school. [I don’t have a date but sometime in the 1930’s.]There was no money to go to college so I applied for a job at the hotel and was hired for the summer months. I was frightened to death of a telephone, we didn’t have one at home, and I would walk 3 miles to communicate in lieu of using a phoneso, my first job, switchboard operator.

“I was fortunate later on to get the job of cashier in the coffee shop; I later became assistant bookkeeper and then head bookkeeper. When Fred Smith retired as manager in1940, the new owners, the Sniders asked to take over as manager, I accepted.

“When WWII started we were very short-handed as employees went off to war and others to the higher paying jobs in the industrial plants. It was about this time that 1000 people arrived in the village for the convention of the National Tuberculosis Society. The closing banquet for about 500 was at the hotel jamming the dining room, the Oak Room and the Lobby. The other members of the convention must have filled the restaurants here and in Lake Placid.

“In 1942 the nation was practicing racial discrimination and the hotel was no different. A group arrived from Buffalo for a seminar at the John Black Room at the Trudeau Laboratory to study and discuss Silicosis with the local doctors. Two or three in the group were Black and the practice at the hotel was to tactfully suggest that they might be more comfortable at the tourist home on Lake Flower Avenue that was operated by black people.

“Later I was served with a subpoena from the State of New York by Julian Reiss, newly appointed officer of the Anti-Discrimination Department. I managed to get out of the predicament by writing letters of apology to all individuals and their employers and filing copies with the state.”

[Eleanor goes on to tell how tough it was buying supplies for the hotel with war rationing and working day and night after the night clerk dropped dead of a heart attackand how the Hotel books went into the black for the first time when the Lake Placid Club was taken over by the Army as a Rest and Relaxation Center for returning combat veterans. Visiting relatives of the veterans filled the hotel. Cots were placed in the dining room, the lobby and the Oak Room, according to Eleanor.]