The Grandest Time

I found a book the other day at the Lakewood Library on the grand old hotels that dotted the lake in the early to late 19th century.

All but two of the 19 magnificent structures featured in the book were demolished or burned, which to me is the real story. I get the sense that people in those days had no idea how highly we’d value their architecture, how we’d admire the sturdiness of their structures, how expensive it would one day be to replicate their buildings, and how our own sense of style would take horrific detours — like the blocky buildings of the 1970’s.

Builders and owners in those days must have thought that their excellent craftsmanship would continue to be practiced for centuries to come — that surely no one would resort to something as ungainly as a strip mall or a poorly constructed house. Lakewood itself is a testament to the way they did things in those days — houses that have withstood the test of time — with their front porches, dormers, and recessed balconies, rounded towers, and intricate wood details.

Many of these Lakewood homes remain — but the hotels, of course, didn’t fare as well.

One of the most dramatic hotels on the lake was the Grand Hotel at Point Chautauqua. It lived up to its name in every way — giant, stately, full of verandas “richly decorated with cutwork and filigree” facing the lake on every floor.

Inside, solid black walnut was featured as if solid black walnut was common, gorgeous hardwood furniture and a dining room famous throughout the region for its beauty and its tempting cuisine.

It was bought, sold and improved by a group of investors years after it opened, and when a station of the local railroad was built nearby it wasn’t long before the Grand Hotel became the most successful resort on the lake. But it was expensive to maintain and in 1902, it burned to the ground in what must have been an impressive fire that lasted only a few hours.

It was also a scandal.

A yearlong investigation ensued. In the end, three people were accused of arson — and just one was found guilty and sent to prison. Her name was Mrs. Lara Allen and she was a friend of the owner. She was responsible for making arrangements for the hotel to be burned down.

What I’d like to show Mrs. Allen today is the typical American hotel — a cement monstrosity that looks like every other hotel in its chain — unimaginative, corporately-owned, blocky and devoid of embellishments and anything that screams “I’m special!”

The Kent House in Lakewood is another great story, and it so perfectly symbolizes the grandeur of those days and the difficulty of being a hotelier.

It stood where the yacht club is today, a massive structure, with a 100 ft. dining room, three parlors, room for 500 guests, and all the modern amenities offered in that day.

It burned to the ground in 1887, with the Jamestown Fire Department responding with a one-horse cart. A few short months later, the second Kent House would be built — a beautiful design of its own — but it would suffer a fate perhaps worse than burning: It was eventually bordered up and left to decay until it became an eye sore and a “sad reminder of better times.” It was eventually razed — with all of its 600,000 square feet of lumber and 1,131 doors. Some of the materials that were salvaged were used to build homes in Lakewood.

If there’s one thing for certain, everyone staying at the hotels around the lake were having a very good time indeed. In fact, on any given summer night, thousands of people from Mayville to Lakewood to Greenhurst to Point Chautauqua were having more fun than anyone had a right to be having. Even if you were staying at the Institution where alcohol and dancing were prohibited, you’d just mosey on down to The Lighthouse Point Hotel for some late night fun.

Visitors at hotels around the lake were treated to Turkish baths, three-hour, 8-course dinners, morning promenades, boat races, full orchestras, dress parades by visiting drill teams, lawn games, carriage rides, boat rides and dance hops.

There were boat houses, bath houses, casinos, dance halls, rowing clubs and yacht clubs. There was an actual bandstand built high up in a tree at the Greenhurst Hotel.

After the 19th century, great hotels like the ones built here disappeared all across America. Too big, too costly, too extravagant — too flammable. And then the automobile came along and made it easy for Americans to go sightseeing by car so now we take exits to find a hotel instead of arriving by steamboat.

I ask you this: Can you miss an era you never lived in?

Because I wouldn’t mind taking a ride to the Greenhurst Hotel tonight and dancing beneath a tree, or pulling up a chair at the Kent House to be served by a waiter in tails.

And if you don’t feel nostalgic about any of this, you should at least be aware that we came a little late to the party.