Recovering the original Hotel Saranac

SARANAC LAKE – Officials from the New York State Historic Preservation Office toured the Hotel Saranac on Jan. 23 for an initial review of the proposed restoration project.

Braving subzero temperatures in the unheated building, they gathered information and provided guidance regarding the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places and eligibility for the rehabilitation tax credit. The tax credit subsidizes up to 40 percent of the rehabilitation of National Register-listed commercial buildings.

Fred B. Roedel III, whose company has 45 years of experience developing, constructing, managing and designing hotels, led the tour along with consultant Kim Alvarez of Landmark Consulting LLC. Alvarez is preparing the National Register nomination and tax credit application. James Warren, manager of the historic preservation tax credit program and member of the Technical Assistance Unit, and Bill Krattinger, historic preservation program analyst, also toured the site. Roedel invited the participation of local historian Mary Hotaling and Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania.

Beginning the tour at the main entrance, Roedel explained that in 1977, Paul Smith’s College moved the registration desk here and enclosed the arcade corridor. The arcade will be restored, and this floor will include hotel amenities and rented retail and restaurant space. To control air flow, Roedel Companies intends to install revolving doors appropriate to the period.

Bronze and plate-glass storefronts will be restored, as will decorative plaster walls and ceilings.

One challenge is handicap accessibility, as there are several different levels on the ground floor. The design team is working on a plan to ensure full handicap accessibility while allowing for restoration of the marble terrazzo floors.

Continuing to the Academy Street corner, Alvarez explained that layers need to be removed to discover the original fabric of the building. Warren said that such “exploratory demolition” is fine as long as it is only removing recently applied changes such as dropped ceilings, drywall, newer flooring and paint. He explained that for the historic tax credit, “You are not responsible for anything a previous owner did to diminish historic features. You don’t have to return it, but if there’s anything historic left, it should be left after you are done.” He said that even in the case of a dropped ceiling, Roedel Companies would not be required to remove it. However, “feel free to do so!” he laughed. It became clear during the tour that in many ways Roedel plans to go beyond the requirements for preservation.

The entire electrical system needs to be upgraded, as evidenced by a single plate of 18 electrical switches in the former gift shop.

“What are these lights for?” asked one attendee.

“The whole town!” joked Roedel.

A leaded prism glass will again grace the side and rear of the building. Alvarez pointed out that the goal is to restore all three of the hotel’s primary facades.

The unsightly metal structure on the back of the building will be removed, and a parking structure will provide needed spaces. Roedel explained the need for parking with an anecdote about his wedding at the hotel 20 years ago in January.

“It was 40 below, and there was only parking for 40 cars. My parents parked in the Newberry’s (now Sears) lot and got a ticket! That’s not a good thing in the hotel world.”

Warren said his office will carefully review his plans for the structure, advising that it must be compatible but distinct.

“Make it look nice,” he said, “but don’t try to pretend that it is something original.”

The tour continued to the second-floor lobby, originally modeled after a Renaissance-era Italian palazzo.

“The key is to retain the historic character, especially in these principal spaces,” Krattinger explained.

Roedel Companies will conserve the ornamental beams on scroll brackets, marble staircase, decorative ceiling painting, fireplace and original chandeliers. The registration desk will be restored to its original location here on the second floor. One challenge is to install sprinkler systems without detracting from the historic character.

The adjoining formal dining or ballroom will be fully restored, including the room’s oak-paneled walls, decorative plaster ceilings, arched-topped windows and French doors.

The group toured the second-floor terrace, which will be opened as a cafe. The patio has no drainage and slopes toward the building, causing water damage. Drainage will be installed, and the dressed limestone of the decorative balustrade and storefront facades will be restored.

Guest room windows were replaced in recent years with vinyl windows, which have a short lifespan and are already showing their wear. All of the guest windows will be replaced with higher-quality windows of the period.

Touring the third floor of guest rooms, Roedel discussed the need for new electrical and sprinkler systems. The design team is working on a plan that will install the new systems unobtrusively without lowering the hallway ceilings into a flat surface.

Roedel discussed plans for the approximately 80 guest rooms. They will be totally renovated to the highest standards. Although many of the rooms are quite small, most will not be enlarged. High-quality design and furnishings will make the size work. Historic preservation guidelines allow for modern guest-room amenities and furnishings.

The last owner left the building full of trash. Eerily, guest rooms remain untouched since the last guests closed the doors.

“The first few months will just be cleaning,” Roedel said.

The final stop on the tour was the massive basement, where a 5-foot-high water line shows the extent of Christmas Eve flooding. Apparently, Roedel said, the sprinkler system was frozen when the building changed hands. When Roedel Companies turned on the heat, the frozen water in the pipes thawed and filled the basement with water. The Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department came to the rescue, and the concrete and steel building came through unscathed.

Roedel Companies is exploring various possible uses of the basement space, including a potential partnership with Clarkson University.

By the end of the tour, the group emerged from the cold building awed by the size of the task at hand, but even more impressed by Roedel’s determination to bring the historic hotel back. Webcams showing the progress will soon be up and running on Historic Saranac Lake is planning a spring preservation workshop that will feature a hardhat tour of the hotel.