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Published: 1/20/2001

Lodged in times gone by

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The Oak Harbor Hotel benefits from its proximity to Lake Erie. The Oak Harbor Hotel benefits from its proximity to Lake Erie.
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Linda Stirgwolt is manager of Port Clinton's Island House. Linda Stirgwolt is manager of Port Clinton's Island House.
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The downtown hotel was built in 1886. The downtown hotel was built in 1886.
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Vintage light fixtures and bar, as well as a pressed-metal ceiling, attest to the Island House's Age. Vintage light fixtures and bar, as well as a pressed-metal ceiling, attest to the Island House's Age.
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That condition remained for the downtown Port Clinton hotel's first 40 years, from 1886 when it was built until bathrooms were added for each room in 1926. By then, the core customers the hotel was built to serve, the traveling salesmen who got off the trains at the station two blocks away, had almost disappeared.

But the hotel was lucky enough to be near Put-in-Bay - a big tourist destination - and innovative enough to keep drawing guests even after State Rt. 2, which once ran in front of the hotel, bypassed downtown and the passenger trains quit stopping.

Of the hundreds of downtown hotels that served Ohio and Michigan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is one of only a few that remain in the business of renting rooms for a night.

“They just got old and stuffy,” David Waleri, an owner of the Island House, said of many of the area's old downtown hotels that closed. “They just didn't maintain themselves. By the time they tried to catch up, usually by then they were broke.”

Of those that remain, a few have done so by attempting to keep up with modern conveniences. The three-story Island House, which Ohio-born presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Warren Harding are thought to have visited, added an elevator in the 1960s.

Others, such as the Hotel Lakeside and Oak Harbor Hotel, have found their Lake Erie location a big enough draw to be able to rent rooms that have no telephone or television.

A few appear to have stayed in business by being the cheapest option in town.

The Lorraine Motor Hotel on Jefferson Avenue in Toledo draws on traffic from the nearby Greyhound station, with $25 a night rates for one person and $30 for two. Park Hotel on Knapp Street near Toledo's train station charges $18 a night, but is nearly filled with long-term residents and goes months without a traveler renting a room for one night. Still, it advertises a “convenient downtown location” in the Toledo Yellow Pages hotel listings.

The key factor in the old downtown hotels that remain in business is “location, location, location,” said Peter Chervo, general manager of the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Toledo. It was built in 1984 to link with Owens-Illinois, Inc., and the former Portside complex, even though other hotels were just blocks away.

“The hotel business is really the real estate business,” he said.

Beverly Goldstein, owner of the Oak Harbor Hotel, which opened in 1900 and now depends largely on its restaurant and bar for revenues, said, “Unless you have something close by to help out, like some tourists and fishermen that we get, we'd probably have to close that part of it completely.”

But there are notable exceptions.

The Golden Lamb of Lebanon, Ohio, opened in 1803 - the year Ohio became a state - and its owners say it is the state's oldest continuously operating hotel. The hotel may be the biggest claim to fame for the town of 12,000 residents between Dayton and Cincinnati.

“It's kind of comical. We have one thermostat for the whole building,” managing partner Paul Resetar said of his 185-year-old building. “I always tell the customers if you're cold, call us and we'll turn the thermostat up. And if you're warm, turn the air conditioner on.”

The hotel, which was built with 36 rooms, lost half of them when it added private baths to every room decades ago. With 18 rooms that rent for $75 to $125 a night, the inn turns a profit.

“We wish we had more rooms,” Mr. Resetar said. “We could fill more on weekends.”

But it is the well-known hotel restaurant, which serves 500 meals on an average day and 2,000 on major holidays, that drives the Golden Lamb. It has nine dining rooms serving meals that usually cost $12 to $20 a person. The largest dining room seats 80, the smallest, nine.

Port Clinton's Island House, which now rents 38 rooms, depends on its Lake Erie location during the summer, when room rates range from $120 to $220 on weekends and $70 to $170 on weekdays.

But the lake doesn't help much during the winter. The hotel closes during the week but opens on weekends for a Murder Mystery series, renting rooms for $40 to $150.

The hotel's Italian restaurant, Anthony's, is seasonal. But its steakhouse, Conrad's, is open year-round, even on off-season weekdays when the hotel doesn't rent rooms.

All of the area's oldest hotels draw almost solely from leisure travelers, not those on business. For many, core customers are 50 or older.

That's a disadvantage because business travelers, who are the lifeblood of many hotels, tend to spend more, said Mr. Waleri, the Island House owner.

But many of the old hotels have more charm - that takes free time to appreciate - than services that business travelers tend to want.

Few of the old hotels have toll-free reservation systems. None offer the standardized features business travelers can research in detail on Internet sites or in printed hotel chain directories.

Seven companies control, manage, or franchise 75 per cent of the hotels and motels in the country, according to Keith Stephenson, acting director of the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association.

For the old downtown hotels, however, some missing amenities may no longer be big drawbacks. The Oak Harbor's only telephone for guests is a pay phone in the lobby.

“Now with cell phones, it's not generally a very big problem,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “Sometimes you get somebody who had to have a phone so they weren't able to stay here. But most people don't come to work the phones.”

The three-story inn, which has no elevator, rents 12 rooms but contains 14 more it hasn't rented for years. The rooms, measuring about 10 feet by 12 feet, rent for $20 to $38 a night, but the cheaper ones share bathrooms.

Accommodations are simple: little more than a bed, chair, and night stand. Rooms that have shared bathrooms have in-room sinks and although there are not closets there are clothes trees or hooks in each room.

The hotel appeals most to “individualists” who like to try something different; the same type of people who look for unique restaurants instead of chains, Mrs. Goldstein said.

Hotel Lakeside, which is a block away from a 1960s era hotel with comparable prices operated by the same group, is preferred by antiques lovers, hospitality manager Virginia Joy said.

The 125-year-old hotel charges $80 to $126 a night for its 90 rooms. Those with a lakefront view or air conditioning - none of the rooms has both - go for the higher rates.

None of the rooms is heated, so the hotel's season is limited to Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Toledo's Lorraine Hotel was complete with bathrooms and telephones in its 147 rooms when it opened in 1925. The bar has been closed for years, but the restaurant remains open.

It appears clean and fresh, although bedspreads are worn and the carpet is stained in some rooms.

At the 65-room Park Hotel, however, the marble reception desk, tall wooden doors, high ceilings, and terrazzo floors throughout are the most visible reminders of what must have been the builders' dreams for the place in 1905.

Throughout the hotel, paint is peeling, bare bulbs light rooms, and cigarette smoke is evident. A sign by the phone in the 24-hour restaurant says: “Attention. This pay phone is not here for you to page your drug dealer and wait for your return calls. Beware, eyes are watching.”



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