Hotel’s history exposed

SARANAC LAKE – Roedel Companies is using every tool in its toolbox to bring back the Hotel Saranac, from crowbars and hammers to pen on paper.

During a tour of the project site last week, the New Hampshire-based company’s historic preservation consultant, Kim Alvarez of Landmark Consulting in Albany, talked about the challenges of restoring the iconic Main Street hotel. The tour was part of a day of historic preservation programs put on by Historic Saranac Lake.

Roedel Companies, led by Fred Roedel III, purchased the hotel in early December from the Arora family for $1.4 million. The company has promised to return the hotel “to its historic grandeur.”

“It’s a fun project,” Alvarez said. “It’s always very fortunate when you have a project like this where the direction is coming from the owner who wants to see it done right.”

The arcade

The six-story hotel, designed by local architects William Scopes and Maurice Feustmann, opened for business in July 1927.

“When it was originally built, it kind of took a New York City hotel design and located the main lobby or the reception lobby on the second floor,” Alvarez said, standing outside the hotel’s main entrance. “The ground floor contained mostly retail spaces. It was a true Main Street building where three of the facades faced onto streets and had storefronts.”

There were 15 shops on the ground floor when the building opened, including a barber shop, coffee shop, a florist and a drug store. Many of the shops also had entrances off an arcade, or long interior hallway, that Alvarez called “one of the most significant and wonderful aspects of this building.” It ran through the building’s ground floor from Main Street to Academy Street.

“Many of us rode our bicycles in (the front) door and out the back door,” said Ron Keough, one of the roughly 40 people who participated in the tour.

“I hear so many stories about the arcade,” Alvarez said. “People would whisper and they’d hear it on the other side, or people would go to church and walk through here to stay warm. The wonderful thing is now it’s being brought back.”

The arcade was blocked off in 1977 when the hotel was owned by Paul Smith’s College. The hotel’s central staircase, which previously stopped on the second floor, had to be extended down into the middle of the arcade due to what Alvarez called “modern codes and fire egress requirements.” The arcade was also blocked by the front desk of the hotel, which was moved from the second floor, and part of the former Boathouse Lounge.

Roedel Companies is now working to restore the arcade. When crews started gutting the building last month, they took out the front desk and the walls that blocked the hallway, exposing the steel staircase. Alvarez said that section of the staircase will be removed, and access to the ground floor will be provided by another stairwell, on the northwest corner of the building, that the college added in 1987.

Crews have also taken out several layers of drywall that covered up the historic storefronts along each side of the arcade. After pulling up a ramp and a deck from the Boathouse Lounge area, they discovered the original terrazzo floor in that section of the arcade is still intact, Alvarez said.

First-floor space

Stepping away from the arcade, Alvarez led the group into the former retail shops on the Academy Street side of the first floor, where crews have also been hard at work. They’ve removed drop ceilings that concealed the full height of each shop. They uncovered recessed entryways to the shops, and some of the original transem windows, made of leaded glass, above those doorways, which had been blocked off or covered by awnings.

“A lot of the smaller spaces were joined in order to make larger retail spaces,” Alvarez said. “You particularly see this in the old gift shop space where they combined three separate storefronts into one large one. As a result of combining them, they no longer needed the entry doors that would have been on Main Street, so they kind of removed them, but fortunately they kept the frame, and the recess and the transoms on two of the three sides.”

Alvarez said the Academy Street side of the first floor is more historically intact than the other side of the arcade.

“The other side, where A.P. Smith’s restaurant was, has been changed again and again,” she said. “There’s not as clear a sense of how it was originally laid out.”

As they’ve done on the opposite side, crews have removed drop ceilings from the former restaurant and peeled back drywall to expose recessed doorways and transom windows. Alvarez said there were originally three separate storefronts on this side of the building, along with a cafeteria that later became a bar called the Tap Room.

“That’s where (local radio personality) Johnny Garwood used to go when he was on the air across the street at WNBZ (in the Berkeley Hotel),” recalled Chris Brescia, who was also on the tour. “One time (then-WNBZ owner) Jim Rogers called the station and was trying to get a hold of John, and nobody answered. Then he called over (to the Tap Room), and guess who answered the phone?”

What does Roedel Companies plan do with the space on the hotel’s first floor?

“They’re still figuring out the programming,” Alvarez said, “but they would like a lot of this to still be retail or some commercial use that has a connection to the hotel, whether it be a gift shop, a coffee shop, possibly a spa or a restaurant that would be a draw for both Main Street and the downtown, as well as the hotel.”

Main lobby and ballroom

Alvarez said she believes Scopes’ design for the hotel’s second-floor lobby was inspired by a book that was published in 1921 documenting the restoration of a 15th-century Italian palace, the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence.

“He modeled the ceiling and the layout of this space after the restoration of that building,” she said. “What he seems to have really picked up is the rhythm of the beams, steel beams encased in plaster, that are faux painted to look like wood.”

Each beam has stenciling that is similar to what was in the palazzo, Alvarez said. Instead of family crests or Italian iconography, the stencils on the hotel lobby’s beams are Adirondack-related, including wildlife, snowshoes, fish and the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace.

Unfortunately, Alvarez said one end of the lobby’s roof has sustained significant water damage, likely from a bathroom plumbing leak above. The plaster will have to be knocked down and redone, and the beams re-stenciled, Alvarez said.

“As you enter the ballroom, the acoustics are better and it’s much more intimate,” she told the group. “It’s a perfect ballroom, in my opinion. It would have originally just have had hardwood flooring, original wall paneling and decorative plaster. There would have been different light fixtures in here, but they have since been sold off, I guess.”

Rooms

When the hotel opened, it had 100 guest rooms spread out over four floors. Over the years, several of the rooms were combined into larger suites. When the hotel was sold last year, it had 88 rooms.

There are few historically significant features in the hotel’s rooms, except for some doors that have an inlay and original brass hardware, Alvarez explained. Each room also had a bathroom, which was unusual for that time, she said.

“The challenge the architects have right now is they’re very small bathrooms,” she said. “The discussion has been to upgrade them to a real high-level finish to hopefully make people forget about how small it is, so they say, ‘This is a really luxurious bathroom.'”

Roedel, who joined the tour later, said he expects the hotel will be in the 85-room range. He said he has to have at least one room on each floor that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beyond that, he doesn’t plan on changing the room sizes, most of which are smaller than in most modern hotels.

“That’s part of what we think is special about the building,” he said. “In real life, believe it or not, there are rooms smaller than this in places like New York City and big cities. We’re not going to radically change the rooms, just make them a very high-end room. That goes from the quality of the rug, the television, the bedding, the bed – you name it. What we need is for people to walk into a 9-foot room and go, ‘Wow.'”

Exterior, amenities

While he thinks the hotel is an attractive building, Roedel also called it “a big brick block.” It wasn’t originally designed that way, however.

“(Alvarez) found a rendering that showed the original intent was different,” Roedel said. “They had a different parapet on the top. They had balconies and railings around some of the windows. It was little stuff that broke up the six-story red wall.”

The outside terrace on the second floor originally had a canopy that helped “give some identity to the front.” Having a cafe or restaurant on the terrace, with access directly from Main Street, is also being considered.

“It’s going to be a focal point of this whole thing, and it’s going to be active,” Roedel said of the terrace.

The biggest challenge he’s facing now, he said, is which amenities to add to the hotel and where to put them.

“There’s not that much room, believe it or not,” he said. “We do know some things are very important. The gift shop is very important. It was a staple of this community. So you’ve got to have a gift shop, and we’ve got to have a fitness center. So where do you put the gift shop and the fitness center? There’s been talk of a spa. Can we do a spa? All those things we’re going through.”

Roedel said his company also plans to use the hotel’s basement space. In addition to laundry and “back of the house” functions, he said the rooms in the basement could be upgraded and used for meeting space or as incubator space to support local businesses.

Tax credits

Alvarez said tax credits are “a huge tool” in the restoration of the building. The first step in the process of securing tax credits is getting the hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Alvarez said there are two historic districts nearby, but neither includes the hotel.

“That was our first step, to begin talking to the state Historic Preservation office to receive a preliminary determination of eligibility and make sure they agreed this was likely to be eligible to be listed on the National Register,” she said. “We got the green light with that, and I drafted the National Register nomination. We are pending as a National Register-listed property, which allows us to move forward with the tax credit applications.”

Cornerstone?

Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania said the community seems relieved to finally see the restoration under way.

“People haven’t really been able to believe it until they’ve actually seen the dumpsters show up,” she said. “I think people are just generally relieved. It almost seemed too good to be true for a while.”

Catania said she believes the hotel project will show that historic preservation can be the cornerstone of economic development in small, historic communities like Saranac Lake.

“I think we want to make the point that this is a huge step, but we’d love to see more of this happen downtown,” she said. “I think this can be the beginning of really starting to invest in some of our old downtown buildings and bringing them back. To see the hotel coming back is huge. You just don’t see this kind of success in small towns in upstate New York, so I think it’s a real model.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.