Climbing back to grandeur
A year into revival, Hotel Saranac business creeps toward its goal
SARANAC LAKE — What were once 100 rooms are now 82, but it’s still as regal, as oblong, built to its European plan at six stories, and as fireproof as first advertised in 1927. The Hotel Saranac has been open and operating under new ownership now for a full year, and it is doing well, according to one of its owners.
“Parts of it are right on track,” said Fred Roedel III, chief financial officer of Roedel Companies, which bought Hotel Saranac in 2013, renovated it and opened it January 2018. “I think people have to understand that this hotel hadn’t been very good for a very long time.”
The hotel, while built to match the grandeur of 1920s America, had the misfortune of opening in time for the stock market crash of 1929, facing the Great Depression and a series of owners and bankruptcies. Paul Smith’s College, which operated the hotel as an educational institution, kept the upgrades and restoration of the historic building minimal.
“God bless Paul Smith’s, but they never put a lot of money into it,” Roedel said. Now that the hotel has been restored to a level not seen since the ’20s, “we look at ourselves competing with the old Hilton, the High Peaks, the Crowne (Plaza), the Whiteface Lodge, the Mirror Lake Inn.”
Roedel said over the last year, the hotel rooms have been operating on average between 45 and 50 percent capacity, aiming to get to 65 percent by the time the hotel stabilizes at its full market share.
“It could take anywhere from eight to 16 months for a new hotel to get stabilized,” Roedel said. “We know this is going to take all of that, maybe.”
The hotel stands on land first described as the “Tavern Lot” in Franklin County deeds. The land was transferred from Pliny Miller to John Thurman, and from Thurman to Arvilla Blood in 1870. Blood conveyed the title to the Union Free School District of the Town of Harrietstown, which joined it with the adjacent School Lot. Then came the Saranac Lake High School, in 1890, with its three stories, towers and additions on either side. When the new high school was built in 1925 on Petrova Avenue, the space became available for the Hotel Saranac.
William H. Scopes, of Scopes and Feustmann, who designed and once owned the hotel, spoke with the Enterprise on Sept. 8, 1954. He said he bought the lot for $50,000 and spent in total $690,000 for the hotel’s construction, or about $10 million today. The hotel changed in look during these early phases, as an architect had to take into account onerous churchgoers.
Upon seeing that early drafts of the Hotel Saranac would obstruct the view of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church, the Lake Placid News recalled in 1977, “Monsignor Joseph Creedon, whose flock was both large and vociferous when vocal opposition was required, was able through his parish committee,” the article states, to “… organize a taxpayer’s rebellion which culminated in a mass protest meeting at the Pontiac Theater.”
The parish’s efforts were “indeed enough to cause the hotel planners to include the spacious arcade so that the beautiful church could be seen from Main Street with only moderate squinting,” the article states.
Scopes and M.B. Marshall established the Saranac Lake Hotel Corporation in 1925, and the community bought $133,000 worth of stock in the hotel. The construction firm Branch & Callanan, which also built many of the cure cottages in the village and the great camps in the Adirondacks, got the general construction contract in 1926. The Lake Placid News reported that work aimed to be complete by summer 1927. But the effort was rushed in October 1926, according to the Lake Placid News, as contractors tried to outpace the coming of winter.
Roedel Companies, in the course of the renovation, may have found a consequence of that haste on the hotel’s second-floor terrace. The limestone railings were not installed securely.
“We had to take the railing off, and remake the structure,” Roedel said. “There were holes in the limestone where metal rods should have gone, but were never put in there.”
Another mistake was built into the fireplace in the second-floor Great Hall. Roedel said his compamy’s plan was to put a wood-burning fireplace in. After having a consultant look at the flue, it was determined to be too small. It wouldn’t suck all the smoke out of the room.
“A lot of projects, everybody starts out gangbusters; then you run out of money at the end,” Roedel said. “We don’t know if something happened at the end.”
Scopes was inspired, in his creation of the Great Hall, by the Danvanzati Palace foyer in Florence, Italy, encasing the steel bones of the hotel in plaster painted to look like wood painted with crests. Instead of traditional Italian coat-of-arms, the paintings show an Ice Palace, a snowshoe and other symbols that invoke Adirondack heritage.
The hotel opened July 1, 1927 — 100 rooms, 100 baths — advertised in promotional materials from the time as proudly fireproof and built in the European style.
“This was the first steel and concrete building north of Albany,” Roedel said. “And they marketed it as the first fireproof building north of the city.”
Eleanor K. Munn, who worked at the hotel for 12 years — six as a general manager — described the scene in her talk “The Early Days of the Hotel Saranac” on Nov. 30, 1989.
“Let us go back to 1927. Several new buildings were opened that year,” Munn said. “One of the buildings was the Hotel Saranac. another was Paul Smith’s Electric Light and Power Company — later taken over by Niagra Mohawk and more recently purchased by the village of Saranac Lake and now houses the village offices.”
The hotel as she described it looked quite different — with something like 15 shops and offices accessible from the arcade.
“On the right was the window of a dress shop, next Phil Perry’s Smoke Shop and then the Saranac Lake Men’s Club,” Munn said. “The dress shop, a lingerie shop owned and operated by Ruth Disco, next a small flower shop owned by Helen Archer, on the corner a drugstore, Baber’s Pharmacy. Rounding the corner on Academy Street we find Thomas P. Ward Insurance and the Mountain Gas Company Offices.”
Roedel said that of the hotel’s current four profit centers — the Ampersand Salon and Spa, Academy and Main gift shop, the Campfire Grill and Bar and the hotel itself — food and beverage has exceeded expectations and is doing very well. He said the spa is still getting honed in.
Scopes said he couldn’t remember the exact date, but the hotel was declared receivership in equity — bankruptcy — two years after opening, in 1929.
“Many townspeople had invested in the Hotel Saranac Corporation. It was looked upon as an economically feasible venture and a sound investment. Then came the Wall Street crash of 1929,” Munn said. “The hotel went through bankruptcy. The small investors lost everything, some their life’s savings. This left bitter feelings in the community for many years.”
Scopes maintained that the hotel was fine financially, in his interview with the Enterprise in 1954, but that Marshall, who held the mortgage, wanted to be repaid. Other sources disagree, saying the hotel was a flop from the get-go.
The Enterprise reported that Scopes then bought the hotel outright, closing out the preferred and common stock, and reorganized into a new corporation known as the Hotel Saranac Corporation. Original stockholders were given common stock in this new corporation.
“Mr. Marshall died without leaving a will, according to Mr. Scopes, and his wife inherited the hotel,” the Enterprise reported. Rita Marshall eventually remarried, her last name becoming Snider. “As of October 1, 1937, Mrs. (Marshall) Snider, after foreclosing, took possession of the hotel and has owned it ever since.”
Sometime between the late ’30s and ’40s the most iconic element of the hotel was added — those big glowing letters. Kim Alvarez of Landmark Consulting, the historic preservation consulting firm hired by Roedel Companies, pegged its installation at some point in the early ’40s.
At first, neon tubes illuminated the letters “HOTEL SARANAC.” At some point these tubes burned out, the metal block letters instead lit by large spotlights. At some point these letters became home to birds. The Roedels have since restored the glowing letters with the bright LEDs seen today. They even included a switch to selectively darken the sign, into “HOT SARA,” that apocryphal shortening of the hotel’s name.
“An awful lot of people remember the Hotel Saranac, or Hot Sara,” Roedel said. “I met a general manager working in Massachusetts that went to Paul Smith’s. He said, ‘You guys bought the Hot Sara?’ So it’s awesome that it has that kind of recognition.”
Munn, in 1940, said Snider asked her to take over as general manager. She said the hotel had trouble keeping staff, with people leaving to join the war effort or move downstate to work in factories that paid more.
Then the government temporarily took over the Lake Placid Club as an R&R center for vets returning from overseas. Munn said the hotel was full up and beyond capacity with cots set up in the main dining rooms.
“It was also a fun time. An Army Canteen arrangement provided transportation from the area towns for the young ladies — I was one of them — who would go to the Friday nights at the (Lake Placid) Club to meet soldiers and dance to the U.S. Army Band in the Agora Theatre,” Munn said. “We really had wonderful times!”
Munn said the Hotel Saranac turned a profit during this period — the first time it had done so since she had worked there.
“This was truly a feather in my cap,” Munn said.
The Sniders sold the hotel to Norman Meyer of Port Henry in 1954, in what the Enterprise reported was one the largest real estate transactions in the history of Saranac Lake — without disclosing the sale price. The Enterprise ballparked it as low as $50,000 after talking to Snider’s lawyer.
Meyer owned Meyer’s Drug Store in Saranac Lake, as well as stores in Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga. He took operational control of the building on Oct. 1, 1956. This is known because he disseminated pamphlets with two facts: “I DO NOT ASSUME OWNERSHIP OF THE HOTEL UNTIL OCTOBER 1, 1956. THEREFORE, ANY RECENT CHANGES IN SCHEDULES OR PERSONNEL ARE NOT OF MY DOING. THERE WILL BE NO MAJOR CHANGES INVOLVING PERSONNEL OR SCHEDULES.”
The Hotel Saranac was leased, and then bought, by Paul Smith’s College in 1961 and 1962, respectively. In a 1969 report titled “The Hotel Saranac and it’s relationship to Paul Smith’s College and to the community of Saranac Lake,” J. Donald Craven uncovered what he called “interesting and disturbing facts.”
“It has worked out well as an education facility,” Craven wrote. “Because of the two-fold nature of the Hotel: (1) a business enterprise and (2) a training facility for Paul Smith’s Hotel Administration students, it is somewhat difficult to use standard accounting criteria in determining whether the Hotel is a financial success. A financial success it does not appear to be.”
After 10 interviews with locals, Craven came to the conclusion that the hotel was not regarded well by the village. Citing an audit, he said that 98 percent of rooms were rented to transients, with 2 percent to locals.
“In short, the Hotel is not reaching its potential as a business enterprise, as a training facility for the students, or as a host to the permanent residents of Saranac Lake and visitors to this outstanding scenic and recreational area,” Craven said.
Anecdotal accounts and Enterprise reporting contradict negative feelings by the community. Longtime residents have told the Enterprise how fond they were of seeing PSC students walking the streets in their white chef’s hats.
“We had students from all over the world here in the Adirondacks,” Charlie Alexander said in his 2009 talk “Reflecting on the value of a Saranac Lake icon.” “We would have Japanese tea ceremonies. It really enabled this small community and hotel to achieve so much of its ambitions.”
During its 46-year tenure running the hotel, the college made several multi-million dollar renovations — the most striking of which closed off the arcade in the late 1970s to add more dining space. For decades, the college offered Thursday night buffets, cooked entirely by the students.
A flier dated March 3, 1966, for “Dinner on the Boot,” a night of Italian fare at the Hotel Saranac, features appetizers of stuffed celery with cream cheese and chives, hot Swiss cheese canapes and minestrone soup. Salads were antipasto, Jell-o molds and cabbage salad Italian style. Entrees were shrimp marango, chicken Italian and lasagna. Desserts were angel food cake, apples and cheese, assorted cookies and lime chiffon pie. And a complementary glass of wine!
“My happy stay at the Hotel Saranac coincided with the Hotel’s open house,” said Maralyn Master in “Saranac taste of Adirondack hospitality” in the Albany Times Union, May 1984, “which invited the public to take part in the weekly Thursday night buffet, prepared entirely by the student chefs, and a chance to view the hotel’s newly renovated rooms.”
While the college did not advertise the hotel as for sale, at least from the ’80s onward it was considering selling it off, according to articles from the time. In 1990 the Enterprise reported that the college had received an offer from a major hotel chain for the hotel, but turned it down.
“It’s very interesting over time all the various parties that looked at this one,” Roedel said. “I got a rendering that shows it as a Days Inn. There was a point in time that someone high up in the Days Inn operations executive team was on the Board of Trustees at Paul Smith’s. So you never quite know how far away you are. … This could’ve been a Days Inn.”
News broke that the college was selling the hotel in 2006.
“Lack of revenue and amenities led to the sale,” college spokesman Kenneth Aaron said to the Watertown Daily Times on Oct. 14, 2006. “But the hotel has also been losing money for years, as the cost of staffing the hotel with faculty year-round has exceeded guest revenue. … It has not been a money-making operation for us.”
The deal closed in January 2007 with PSC selling the hotel to Sewa Arora and his family, Sardeshwari Enterprises, for $775,000. Before then, the hotel’s former operations manager told the Enterprise that staff ranged from 150 employees at peak season to 100 on slow seasons.
Roedel said currently the hotel has 79-full-time-equivalent employees. A $5 million state Regional Economic Development Council grant the Roedels were awarded toward the $36 million renovation requires only 45 FTEs. Roedel said Roedel Companies still has not received a check from the state.
What was a positive start with the Aroras soured during their six years of owning the hotel when the restaurant and bar were closed. Arora said to to the Enterprise that changes were necessary to run the hotel as a business — versus how the college ran it, as an educational institution.
The village began sending potential buyers to Arora in 2012, but talks fell apart. Arora announced plans to convert half of the rooms in the hotel into independent living for seniors, which was met with some alarm by the community. That Sept. 25, the Hotel Saranac appeared for sale on Craigslist, but was taken off a few weeks later.
The deal was finalized in December 2013 between Sardeshwari Enterprises and Roedel Companies for the sale of the hotel — at $1,475,995. The Enterprise reported that the community responded with hope. Then began the five-year renovation by the Roedels to return the hotel to its early 20th century splendor.
“Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come,” Roedel said. “We know for a fact it’s going to take much longer for this hotel to reattract that tourist to stay at this type of hotel than it is in some other markets. … The hotel’s had a long, hard life.”