Postcard courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library
The return of a landmark
Lore has it there are ghosts at Hotel Saranac. But if you’re trying to get in touch with the past at the hotel, you don’t need a team of paranormal investigators. You just need to take the staircase to the second floor, climbing stone steps whose edges have been rounded over by countless footfalls, and head to the wood-trimmed telephone booths by the lobby bar. (Kids, ask your parents about telephone booths.)
There, hanging inside the defunct stalls, are dozens of index cards left by visitors who have shared their handwritten memories of the 91-year-old hotel since it reopened in January following a four-year, $35 million restoration:
“When I was a small boy I used to ride my tricycle through the arcade.”
“Used to stay here back around 1945 to perhaps 1948. Dad used to call on laundries here, and my mother and I came up for our vacation.”
“When I was in high school, we used to come here after school, play in the elevators + explore. Sshh … don’t tell anyone!”
The Roedel Companies, a New Hampshire–based hotel firm whose founders have ties to Saranac Lake going back more than a century, spent twice its original budget and two years longer than planned on the project. Viewed purely in business terms, there are easier ways to open a hotel. But Fred Roedel III, the company’s chief financial officer, acknowledged that reopening the hotel means a lot more to Saranac Lake than just putting 82 rooms downtown. The hotel isn’t just an economic anchor to this village of 5,300—it’s a community one, too.
Roedel said he and his father were at their Upper Saranac Lake camp in 2013 when they read a newspaper article featuring the latest spat between the village and the Long Island hotelier who bought the hotel at a fire-sale price when Paul Smith’s College sold it in 2007. (For 45 years the college had used the hotel as on-the-job training for its hospitality students.) At that time online reviews of the hotel were merciless and guests were sparse.
So the Roedels decided to save it.
“This community is important enough to us that we’d feel bad if we didn’t try,” said Roedel, whose family history here goes back to the 1890s, when his great-grandfather moved to Saranac Lake and built the village’s first hydroelectric generator on Lake Flower for hotelier Paul Smith.
And so they began the long process to bring it back, preserving everything they could and adding flourishes—the upscale Ampersand Spa & Salon, Great Hall Bar, and Campfire Adirondack Grill + Bar—to make it a resort destination.
Hotel Saranac has had many chapters, and they haven’t all read like fairy tales. When it opened in 1927, the hotel was meant to cater to the nation’s rising middle class, who had cars and money. The goal was to make Saranac Lake a tourist destination, not just a place where tuberculosis patients came to recuperate. The hotel’s ads made that much clear: “No invalids,” they said.
Then the Great Depression hit. The hotel’s first owner went bankrupt. Visitors never came in droves, even after the economy eventually recovered. But “Hotel Saranac stayed as the center of community life,” said Historic Saranac Lake’s Amy Catania. That had to do with “the college taking it on, and keeping it going.” Banquets, club meetings, weddings—
“any big event that happened in town happened there.”
For Sue Pollio, Roedel’s sister and president of the interior-design firm that worked on the hotel, it was “the job of a lifetime.” She said, “It’s so important to the community. Everyone in our company understands that.”
They’re reminded constantly, by locals coming in to marvel at the restored oak paneling in the ballroom and the gleaming brass mailbox at the bottom of the original mail chute. “I’m very emotional,” one woman said, approaching Roedel a day after the hotel opened. “It’s just fabulous.”
Nothing about Hotel Saranac is cookie-cutter, adding to the expense, and time, needed to bring it back. There are 16 different room configurations. Furnishings needed to be custom designed to fit the spaces that are, by the standards of a modern chain hotel, small.
The hotel is managed by the Roedel Cos., but is part of the Hilton Curio brand, which specializes in historic properties. Hilton wanted at least 24 inches between the foot of the bed and the wall in front of it, to leave space for walking through with suitcases. Pollio had to talk corporate into 22 inches.
The hotel had to purchase smaller housekeeping carts than typically used, because Hotel Saranac’s doors are so narrow. Its fireproof brick walls, a selling point in the 1920s, made it difficult to run wiring for TV, Internet and other modern necessities. Contractors hid all those cables behind newly installed crown molding.
But as much as the building’s quirks added time and expense to the project, Roedel and Pollio were able to bring it back to its former glory because, through the years, so little had been done to tamper with the original structure. A carpet covered the original oak floor in the ballroom. “We pulled that up,” said Roedel, “and said, ‘That girl’s staying.’” Irreplaceable elements were everywhere, including the polished terrazzo floor in the Great Hall.
More than a few visitors have suggested that the Roedels restored Hotel Saranac as a “labor of love”—as in, they can’t imagine a $35 million hotel in the middle of blue-collar Saranac Lake will ever turn a profit. Roedel quickly shot down the notion. “We don’t do labors of love. Trust me,” he said. “Last I looked, love doesn’t pay the bills.”
Roedel isn’t the only one expecting the hotel to carry its weight. In downtown Saranac Lake, business owners are optimistic that after figuring out how to survive without a hotel, having the extra traffic will be gravy.
Jecinda Hughes, owner of Origin Coffee a half-block from the hotel, timed her opening in 2015 to coincide with the hotel’s. She was on time. The hotel took a little longer.
Hughes said it was nerve-wracking to open her doors without the traffic she had counted on from the hotel down the street. Origin Coffee has been successful, but now she’s looking forward to additional business from Hotel Saranac visitors.
Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau, who fired a shot or two in the hotel’s direction about the protracted restoration during a brief legal battle between the Roedels and the village, said, “It’s been four or five years, but who’s counting?” Getting the hotel back online, he said, was like “oxygen entering deflated lungs.”
According to Rabideau, Hotel Saranac is proof that the village is on the right track economically. “Good things can happen. Good things will happen,” he promised.
Roedel sees Hotel Saranac as an anchor for downtown, steering guests to the village that has meant so much to his family. “I think there’s a lot of great memories to be had coming up. I’m glad the center of the universe is back in the village. It’s a good day. It’s a good day.”
If you go
Learn more about Hotel Saranac and its Campfire Adirondack Grill + Bar, Great Hall Bar, and Ampersand Spa & Salon at (518) 891-6900 or www.hotelsaranac.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.