How grand hotels are making an expensive comeback
Developers eager to deliver on uniqueness and authenticity are turning their attention to socialite playgrounds of yesteryear, writes Nikki Ekstein
You’d think the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers would have been happy to entertain in their lavish mansions. In the second half of the 19th century, however, as trains and cars replaced horses and buggies, American society extended the radius of how far it was willing to go for a good party.
Enter the grand hotels of the Gilded Age. They had dark bars for trysts and business deals; accommodation with chandeliers and silk linens; and restaurants that served delicacies on fine china and crystal. Few of these venues remain. Many were destroyed in fires or torn down after losing their lustre.
Now, developers who are eager to deliver on uniqueness and authenticity — today’s biggest buzzwords in travel — are turning their attention to the remaining socialite playgrounds of yesteryear.
"Hotels with rich histories make guests feel like they are part of something meaningful," says David Roedel, who helped redevelop Hotel Saranac, a turn-of-the-century hotspot in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, about a five-hour drive north of Manhattan. And while it’s challenging to modernise a property such as Blantyre — a fantastic castle in the Berkshires with towers and gargoyles — these legendary assets are tempting entrepreneurs because no one would invest in building something so lavish now.
"There is no way these historic properties can be replicated today and be viable business opportunities," says Blantyre’s owner, Linda Law, explaining that when the property was originally shaped, 1,000 craftsmen contributed.
Restoring them is possible, though, thanks in part to 20% US federal income tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic properties — a provision that hoteliers were keen to cash in on before the current administration’s tax overhaul. Contrary to their fears, the policy remains in effect.
The Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club, Miami opened with a debauched New Year’s Eve gala in 1930 — in the middle of Prohibition — and never stopped partying.
Elizabeth Arden hosted Champagne-fuelled fashion shows by the pool. Winston Churchill took two poolside cabanas: one for painting and one for sleeping off hangovers. Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack saw it as a place to do whatever they wanted, far from prying eyes.
In March 2017, the Surf Club was reborn as a Four Seasons, with whitewashed rooms and a Champagne bar by Le Sirenuse, the Amalfi Coast mainstay, in the former clubhouse. A Thomas Keller restaurant is coming soon. But the five second-floor Cabana Studios would still be recognisable to their former occupants: Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams and Dean Martin.
Hotel Saranac on Lake Saranac, in New York state is the last survivor of 13 hotels that roared with life in the 1920s. It’s where feminists rallied in favour of Prohibition while speakeasy barmen slung cocktails to robber barons.
It took three years and $35m million to restore the hotel — that excited locals so much, they built a gigantic ice replica of it during their annual winter carnival. Now many of them come in for a Negroni in the great hall, which has a painted wooden ceiling inspired by Florence’s 14th-century Davanzati Palace. Guests can mail postcards from an original letterbox or sit around rooftop fire pits with views of the Hudson Valley, knowing they’re staying in one of the area’s original fireproof buildings.
The US Grant, in San Diego, was built as a tribute to the 18th president of the US, but that’s not why such subsequent heads of state as Woodrow Wilson and John F Kennedy loved to stay at this icon.
They came for the unparallelled glitz and five-star hospitality. It was so popular with commanders-in-chief that a radio station was added to the hotel for national broadcasts. Their presence didn’t stop the fun, though. During Prohibition, the hotel’s co-owner used connections in Mexico to smuggle in alcohol via underground tunnels built to bring salt water from the bay to the hotel’s Turkish and Moroccan baths.
When the property reopens in May, it will have the US’s only Dom Perignon Champagne lounge, a spa in the former potting shed and a croquet court on the lawn
A $13m renovation was completed in 2018, and the hotel is back to life. Suites still have the hotel’s signature sparkling chandeliers and custom Yves Clement drip-painted headboards.
Look at the floor while you’re waiting for the lift — a stone medallion with a pewter crest by your feet marks the location of a time capsule. Inside are mementos from the institution’s past, ranging from newspaper clippings to Champagne sabres.
Blantyre, in Lenox, Massachusetts was built in the late 1890s by a British gentleman named Robert Paterson who decided to clone his mother’s ancestral home in Scotland on 89ha of land in the US Berkshires.
When it was completed, the gilded castle became the backdrop for black-tie garden parties and salacious supper clubs. It also caused Paterson’s taxes to skyrocket, so he sold it in the 1920s and it eventually became the country’s first Relais & Chateaux hotel. The team behind the Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn, two standard-setting properties in Rhode Island, announced its acquisition of Blantyre in January— along with plans to renovate the stuffy hotel into a modern gem.
When the property reopens in May, it will have the US’s only Dom Perignon Champagne lounge, a spa in the former potting shed and a croquet court on the lawn. Head to the Conservatory to find one important nod to the past: drinks served in William Yeoward crystal, from the hotel’s early days.
The Oasis at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park in California — in the US’s hottest, driest national park — is an oasis with natural springs. That’s where the Pacific Borax Mining Company built a hotel in 1927. Rooms started at $10 per night, including meals.
Then the owners added a spa and lush gardens, and Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan started coming. In 1977, the inn accommodated the entire cast of the original Star Wars, which was filmed nearby.
On February 1, exactly 91 years after the hotel originally opened, the Oasis at Death Valley welcomed its first guests after a six-year, multimillion-dollar renovation.
A new bar with terracotta floors is lined with paintings that tell the area’s story; and 22 Spanish-style casitas were added around the resort’s gardens. Lounge around the spring-fed pool and ask for a milkshake made with fruit from the hotel’s date groves.
Dominie Lenz, the hotel’s general manager, said it wasn’t easy to oversee a total renovation under the Death Valley sun, but the results were worth it: "We get to live up to the grandeur of this space — and welcome people to a destination Americans forgot existed."