Before there were automobiles, before there was air conditioning, there were the Adirondacks and its all-inclusive inns.
Dinner, tennis and lakefront views were some of the amenities the inns offered guests who retreated from the sweltering cities during the summer months in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
While several traditional inns and resorts hold on to a piece of American history, others are being sold to developers poised with a wrecking ball to level the large buildings, subdivide the land and build private vacation homes to bring in the big bucks.
“Everyone will eventually — I’m sure — suffer the same fate (as Holl’s Inn in Inlet) because it’s just not economically feasible to try and eke out a living running a hotel … “ said Greg Timm, co-owner of Timm Associates Realty in Old Forge. “There’s more value in the land subdivided into parcels than there ever would be in trying to resurrect a hotel. That’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact of life.”
At least 18 inns in the Old-Forge-Eagle Bay-Inlet area have closed over the years, and while some see the trend as impending for all of the quintessential Adirondack inns, others believe there’s room in vacationers’ habits for them to be maintained.
Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, said some of those still operating include Covewood Lodge and The Waldheim on Big Moose Lake, and Hemlock Hill on Lake Clear.
“It’s disappointing to hear when a big sort of historic inn like the Holl’s Inn in Inlet is going to be demolished and no longer function as an inn,” Englehart said. “That seems like a fad passing and kind of the end of an era.
“On the other hand, there are lots of examples throughout the Adirondacks of similar kinds of establishments that continue to thrive and do well.”
In contrast, Timm — who was Realtor for Holl’s Inn, a lakefront property nestled in a cove off Fourth Lake — sold the property to Pittsburgh, Pa., residents Charles and Hillary Porter. It eventually will be torn down.
He said two cottages on the premises will be restored.
Calls to Hillary Porter were not returned.
“They are not going to operate it as an inn,” Timm said. “It was in extreme disrepair.”
A demolished portion of Holl’s Inn could be seen during a recent visit to Fourth Lake. Signs dotted the property — from the driveway to the lake shore — warning off trespassers. Many of the windows on the faded green building were boarded up, while others allowed a glimpse into the inn’s history with sights of mattresses and lamps — artifacts of an inn that once provided the American Plan to its guests.
Once upon a time, an inn providing the American Plan was the way to vacation in the Adirondacks. The plan provided lodging, meals and activities at one price.
Prices ranged from $10 to $21 per week per person in 1890 (that would be about $250 to $520 in 2012).
“They would spend a month or an entire summer on the resort,” said Jerry Pepper, director of the Adirondack Museum library. “They were trying to escape the cities.”
With large trunks in tow, Pepper said families would take trains from cities such as New York and Boston, as well areas such as Utica, to the Adirondacks, and from the station take buses or steamboats to their specific resort.
After the automobile was widely introduced in the 1920s and ’30s, he said interest in all-inclusive resorts began to decline.
And once air conditioning was commonplace in big city businesses, Pepper said shutting down for the summer became obsolete.
“More and more of the Adirondack tourism you see centered in places like Old Forge, Lake George or Lake Placid, where there are chain hotels and chain restaurants,” Pepper said. “People are seeing the Adirondacks through the windshield of a car.”
Despite many inns around them closing, Joedda McClain and Jay Latterman have put time, money and effort into preserving The Woods Inn in Inlet.
The inn was abandoned for 28 years. There were offers to purchase and demolish the building in later years, but Latterman said the owner was looking for someone to restore the inn, restaurant and tavern.
“It was in horrific shape. We did a complete restoration,” McClain said of the more than $1 million project. “We really wanted to get the building back up and running.”
From sinking balconies to a lack of insulation and adequate bathrooms, contractor McClain and electrician Latterman dove into the project.
They knew what they were getting into, McClain said, and now after 11 years the inn is for sale and hopefully will go to someone who will appreciate the history within.
At one time, Latterman said the inn operated with the traditional American Plan and featured tennis courts, a dance hall — where traveling bands performed — and an ice cream parlor, the latter two operating in the unused barn-like structure on the premises.
“There’s still a lot of people who appreciate the historically accurate place,” she said. “It’s a totally different experience than staying in a big box inn, or general vacation spot.”
And it was that experience that attracted Sondra Gawlikowski.
The Philadelphia woman was at the inn setting up for her Sept. 7 wedding, and said the lakefront business always was her family’s vacation spot.
“It’s a nostalgic thing. My fiancé — Andrew Zabroske — and I got engaged up here,” she said. “We wouldn’t imagine getting married anywhere else.”
Nancy Martin Pratt, co-owner of The Waldheim on Big Moose Lake, said she’s the third generation of her family to manage the business, which still operates on the American Plan — featuring three meals a day, lodging, maid service and a camp picnic mid-week.
They also have a “fire boy” who comes to each cottage and lights a fire in the fireplace each morning, Pratt said.
“We’re kind of at the end of the road, so it’s kind of a destination spot,” she said. “We’ve watched other businesses come and go, and I don’t know, it’s a miracle, I guess.”
Pratt said her family — the Martins — have owned the establishment, which features 17 cottages, since 1904 and have maintained a loyal customer base.
Plus, her family’s dedication also keeps The Waldheim in business.
“I think they come to value what we stand for, which is family,” Pratt said. “Our family, but also the connection with other families who have come for years.”
There is a lot of family tradition with inns still in operation, Engelhart said, which is a key distinction between them and the “homogenized” places you can stay, no matter where you are in the country.
“People are seeking out places that are distinct, that are different, that are intimate, that are unusual,” he said. “I think that’s part of what the appeal of these places is. Hopefully (they) only continue to be more sought out.”