Photographer: Panagiotis Fotiadis
Luxury Travel

The Great Robber Baron Getaways Are Being Reborn as Stellar Hotels

Permission to vacation like American royalty, granted.

You’d think the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of the world would have been happy to entertain in their lavish mansions. But in the second half of the 19th century, 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; accommodations with chandeliers and silk linens; and restaurants that served delicacies on fine china and crystal. “Had,” of course, is the operative word: Few of these venues remain. Many were destroyed in fires or torn down after losing their luster. 

A historic drawing of the original Hotel Saranac, in upstate New York.
Source: Hotel Saranac

Now, developers who are eager to deliver on uniqueness and authenticity—two of 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,” said David Rondel, owner of the recently-redone Hotel Saranac, a turn-of-the-century hotspot in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

And while it’s challenging (and expensive) to modernize 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.

The original U.S. Grant Hotel, in San Diego, would become a national icon.
Source: The US Grant

Restoring them is possible, though, thanks in part to 20 percent 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.)

Here are the most exciting historic renovations that have opened recently, from coast to coast—and the scintillating stories that made them famous.


The Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club, Miami

The recently revitalized Four Seasons Surf Club in Miami.
Source: Four Seasons Surf Club

The History: The Surf Club opened with a debauched New Year’s Eve gala in 1930—in the middle of Prohibition—and never stopped partying. Elizabeth Arden would throw Champagne-fueled 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. 

The 2.0 Version: 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 recognizable to their former occupants: Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams, and Dean Martin. 


Hotel Saranac, Lake Saranac, N.Y.

The Hotel Saranac is fully redone on the inside but has maintained its historical signage.
Source: Hotel Saranac

The History: In the roaring ‘20s, you either owned a Great Camp in Lake Saranac or hacked it by staying at one of 13 nearby hotels. Only the Hotel Saranac—the liveliest of the bunch—remains. It’s where feminists rallied in favor of Prohibition while speakeasy barmen slung cocktails to robber barons.

The 2.0 Version:  It took three years and $35 million to restore the Hotel Saranac—something 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 also mail postcards from an original letterbox or warm up 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, San Diego

The presidential penthouse at the renovated US Grant.
Source: The US Grant

The History: This hotel was built as a tribute the 18th president of the United States, but that’s not why such subsequent heads of state as Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy loved to stay at this San Diego icon. They came for the unparalleled glitz and five-star hospitality. It was so popular with commanders in chief that a radio station was added to the Presidential Suite 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. (The tunnels’ official purpose? To bring salt water from the bay to the hotel’s Turkish and Moroccan baths.)

The 2.0 Version: A $13 million renovation was completed this year, and the hotel is back to life. Suites still have the hotel’s signature sparkling chandeliers and custom Yves Clement drip-painted headboards. Look up while you’re waiting for the elevator—a stone medallion with a pewter crest on the ceiling marks the location of a hidden time capsule. Inside are mementos from the institution’s past, ranging from newspaper clippings to Champagne sabers.


The Adelphi Hotel, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

A remastered room at the Adelphi Hotel, in the upstate New York horse-racing town of Saratoga Springs.
Source: The Adelphi Hotel

The History:  Think of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as the Hamptons of the late 19th century: Everyone, from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt to gangster-turned-congressman John Morrissey, came here for the soothing natural springs and velvet-clad bars. At the center of it all was the Adelphi Hotel. When Morrissey died here in 1878, ordinary citizens poured into the halls to keep vigil outside his suite’s doors. 

The 2.0 Version: The wall behind the reception area is made of glass plates and ashtrays from the original property. The suites are exquisite, with gilded mirrors reclaimed from the 19th century and modern touches such as heated bathroom floors. And the original grand staircase, restored to regal splendor, now leads to Morrissey’s bar and restaurant, where you can order platefuls of oysters with yuzu mignonette.


Blantyre, Lenox, Mass.

An aerial view of the Scottish castle-turned-hotel that's currently being redesigned.
Source: Blantyre

The History:  In the late 1890s, a British gentleman named Robert Paterson decided to clone his mother’s ancestral home in Scotland ... on 220 acres of land in the U.S. 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 2.0 Version: 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 next month, it will have America’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, Calif. 

A genuine oasis inside California’s Death Valley National Park, fresh off major renovation.
Source: The Oasis at Death Valley

The History: The only place where wildlife can thrive in America’s hottest, driest national park is an oasis with natural springs. That’s where the Pacific Borax Mining Co. 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, including a starring elephant. 

The 2.0 Version: On Feb. 1, 2018, 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.”

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