Dropping in on a riverside renovation

Calli Shelton smiles inside the upper story of the gutted former Dew Drop Inn building last Thursday, Sept. 14. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — I was walking back to work from a coffee break last Thursday when Calli Shelton got out of her vehicle in front of me, and in front of the former Dew Drop Inn building she and Randy Coles are renovating downtown, hanging over the Saranac River. She and I started talking about the progress of demolition (pretty much done) and reconstruction (underway), and when she invited me inside for a tour, I couldn’t say no.

She was dressed up in a spiffy-looking suit and high heels, having just returned from meeting with bank officials in Utica about loans. That could be a tough conversation, I thought, but later she told me that things aren’t too bad in that department. So far, despite some ugly surprises when opening up walls and ceilings, the couple’s original estimate of $1.8 million to restore the building has only swollen to $2.2 million. Granted, that extra 400 grand is a lot of money, but it doesn’t seem so bad when you consider that it includes fixing the ugliest surprise: They’re going to have to rip off the roof and replace it.

Having gutted and rebuilt a house myself, it felt familiar to be inside a building stripped of drywall and carpet and almost everything else that isn’t structural. Calli first showed me the second story, under the problematic roof. I had to dodge holes in the floor, and it provoked curiosity to see window frames revealed under walls, looking out at the brick wall of Amy and Phil Johnstone’s Eco Living building next door, inches away. But the biggest surprise to me was extensive fire damage under the roof and in the wall next to the Johnstone building.

The rafters and wall studs were blackened and cracked like charcoal, and the roof decking was also charred underneath. Clean rafters and studs were long ago put in beside the old ones to hold everything together, and it clearly was structurally sound — clearly, I say, because Calli told me the fire took place way back in 1948.

That was right after Forrest “Dew Drop” Morgan took over the business in 1947. It had been called the Rathskeller, which popular Enterprise scribe Bill McLaughlin once described as “hardly more than a dive at water level.” Dew must have had to put a lot of money into the building after that fire, and the work was done to last.

As construction continues last Thursday to renovate the former Dew Drop Inn building, right, a new dining deck, left, is being built behind the Fiddlehead Bistro on the other side of the Saranac River in downtown Saranac Lake. Across Broadway from Fiddlehead is the Left Bank Cafe, so when the former Dew Drop opens, there will be three restaurants at the Broadway Bridge with riverside patio dining. A new name has been chosen for the former Dew Drop, but the owners are waiting to reveal it. Pictures of its construction can be seen on the Enterprise CU photo galleries. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

A lot of money is being put into the building now, too. The back end along the river was demolished and is being rebuilt more each day. This back end will have three levels instead of its former two: a prep kitchen at river level, a main kitchen at street level and an extension of the second-floor apartments. The new owners plan to make these short-term rentals. The views of the river and the surrounding downtown are very nice and will be even nicer when a balcony is installed. Optimistically, Calli said they hope to open those apartments before the end of this year.

The new restaurant will have to wait until sometime next year.

Sadly, I discovered on the gutted street-level floor that the old, pre-1940s facade is not hiding behind the boring brick wall that has long faced passersby. That old facade’s big storefront windows can be seen in photos from the 1900s to the 1930s, when the building was a drug store, thanks to Historic Saranac Lake’s always-handy LocalWiki website.

Nevertheless, the restaurant is clearly going to be nice; I could tell that from the feel of the space as well as from the blueprints Calli showed me: a large, U-shaped bar up front, dining tables farther back and the restored neon Dew Drop Inn sign hanging on the river-facing wall, visible from both the street and the bar.

I’ve heard some people question why Calli and Randy started a crowdfunding campaign for the sign’s $20,000 restoration. To me, though, it’s fair for locals to put a small bit of skin in the game, especially for something that preserves the community’s past, which matters to them. It’s voluntarily, of course, so if you don’t want to donate, you don’t have to.

Construction continues Sept. 14 on the new back end of the former Dew Drop Inn, which will eventually be three stories like the rest of the building. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Here’s some news, or partial news: Calli and Randy have changed their mind about the name of the place. Originally, their restaurant was to be called 27 Broadway, after its street address, and a bar below would be called Bootleggers. They dropped the idea of a separate bar a while ago, and now, Calli told me, they have come up with a new brand for the combined restaurant-bar — but she wouldn’t tell me what it is. These things need to be rolled out with proper fanfare, I suppose. Stay tuned.

Two crisscrossing stairways will go between the street and lower levels, to an event space and patio deck through which the village plans to reroute its River Walk — a taste of the San Antonio River Walk, which weaves through restaurant and bar patios. Calli and Randy, by the way, moved here from Texas.

Stepping carefully in her high heels, Calli led me outside around the back-end construction. I asked where exactly the River Walk would go, since a small garage stands just a few feet behind her building. She said Wayne Zukin, a Pennsylvania-based real estate developer who has bought and fixed up several Saranac Lake buildings, bought this garage and renovated it. She pointed out a new French door he built on the riverbank, opening onto a spot no one can get to — for now. The River Walk, she said, will go outside this garage as well, over the river, and with this new door, the building could make a cute little retail shop or cafe.

It’s kind of exciting to see businesspeople investing in Saranac Lake, expecting good things from its future.

The Dew Drop was just a memory by the time I moved to town in 1999. Ed Dukett had bought it at an auction in the late 1980s, turned it into an Off Track Betting parlor and then closed it. He housed apartment tenants upstairs, and the Getaway Youth Center moved there in the 2000s — only to leave because of the building’s dangerous condition.

For the most part, it’s just sat there, an eyesore on the river. Ed isn’t the kind of guy who sells property; he keeps his asking prices high even though his buildings are in rough shape. Plus, he’s limited by a punishing legal settlement with the family of a teenager who died in a fire in his junky former apartment houses behind Stewart’s Shop. The deal is that Ed cannot sell a single property until he brings all of his buildings up to code — an impossible task.

Yet the father of that teen made an exception for the former Dew Drop Inn, thanks to appeals by Calli and village leaders who said it was needed for the community’s common good. That leaves Calli and Randy with a responsibility to improve Saranac Lake’s common good. From the looks of things, I’d say they are doing so.

With the Fiddlehead Bistro in a massively renovated building across the river and the Left Bank Cafe across the street — excellent restaurants, both — the Broadway Bridge is going to be a hotspot for dining and drinks. Cheers to that.