It was during a 2008 kitchen renovation that Leonard Muller, a lifelong carpenter for Anne’s Washington Inn, spotted a message in a bottle tucked between two walls of the 130-year-old, two-house property. It was actually the second historical memento he’d come upon; the last had been an old wooden board signed by the building’s original framers and dated 1885. Inside the bottle, Muller found a note written in what appeared to be his father’s hand. The Bokan family opened Anne’s Washington Inn back in 1943, and Leonard’s father, George, was their previous carpenter. “It’s a beautiful day in January, 25 degrees,” it read. Leonard read on, fascinated, until he reached the signature: Leonard Muller, 2003. He’d forgotten that, during a project five years earlier, he’d tossed his own message to posterity over an exterior wall.
This is just one of many stories that have become part of the lore and lure of the Inn, a three-generation family business steeped in decades of Saratoga history. The hotel’s current owners, Joe Bokan Jr. and his wife, Kathy, have kept the family business afloat, even after facing some serious financial challenges. Right around the time that Leonard Muller found that bottle, the Bokan family’s 70-year-old enterprise, then called “The Washington Inn,” was struggling to find new customers. Many of their most loyal guests had either passed away or were unable to continue traveling, and the Inn’s location, tucked away at the end of a long driveway just up from South Broadway, made it an easily overlooked venue. Luckily, Joe Jr. had the wherewithal to rebrand it as “Anne’s Washington Inn” in honor of his mother, Anne Bokan, who ran the hotel before him. The seemingly small name change turned out to have a dramatic effect on business. “The first year our sales went up 20 percent,” Joe says. It turned out that by adding “Anne’s” to the front of the name, it made the Inn appear way higher in Google search results. “We went from page seventeen on every search engine to the top of page one!” he says.
It seems appropriate that Anne’s name became the hotel’s saving grace: Joe’s mother brought the Inn to life in the first place. She and her husband, Joe Bokan, Sr., were innkeepers for more than 50 years. According to her children and grandchildren, Anne managed to host 18 rooms worth of clients; raise Joe Jr. and his five sisters; and still find time to entertain her colorful guests—celebrities, journalists, jockeys and mafiosos—on the South House’s classic wrap-around porch. “She ran the hotel, she loved greeting people and talking to them…She was the hotel,” Joe Jr. says of his mother.
Anne had some help from her kids, who lived at the inn year-round and spent summers working there with friends and cousins. Even as young children, they took reservations, cleaned, did laundry and performed simple repairs around the house. These days, it’s still very much a family business. Madeleine, Joe Jr.’s daughter, handles the public relations and marketing for the Inn from her home in Manhattan. “She was the personality of the hotel,” Madeleine says of her grandmother. “And now my father is!” Joe Jr. and Kathy have changed more than just the name since taking over the Inn some 25 years ago. “Every day is always a new project,” Joe says. “One minute I’ll be touching up paint, the next I’ll be working on plumbing, 20 minutes later I’ll be putting breakfast out, mowing the lawn, setting up for another party…you never know what’s going to happen; it’s always in flux.”
Along with modernizing the decor, Joe and Kathy built out a bright and stately dining room in the South House that can seat 100 guests. Now, on top of managing reservations and maintenance, they host special events and weddings, a new source of business that has proven very successful. “Once a bride comes up here, I book nine out of ten,” Joe tells me, smiling. It’s not hard to see why. Anne’s grassy grounds, Victorian front porch, and archetypal white gazebo make for charming photos. Plus, brides looking for a natural backdrop have the option of heading next door to the Saratoga Spa State Park. The Inn also provides a bridal suite, where brides can oversee wedding preparations through a South-facing window; an outdoor tent that accommodates up to 300 guests; connections with talented local caterers; and off-street parking. But the kicker? Couples can rent out both the event space and the hotel, so their friends and family can head upstairs at the end of the night.
“Not to be dramatic, but I would say it’s quintessential,” Ardith Jane Russel says of Anne’s Washington Inn, where she and her husband, Dan, were married. “Because all of those things you think about when you’re an event planner or you’re the bride and groom trying to plan an event—there’s parking, there’s a place to stay, the rooms and the setting are beautiful—it has all the elements right there.” But what seems to stand out the most is the Bokan family’s earnest and welcoming hospitality. “I can’t think of any time whatsoever during the planning of our wedding, throughout the wedding or when we were getting up to leave that we didn’t feel completely comfortable,” says Dan. Adds his wife: “It was just like our home—it was like we owned a mansion for a day. And that felt special; that felt like a gift we gave to our guests.”
Another satisfied bride concurs with the Russels: “The owner, Joe, is an absolute sweetheart, and we are so happy that we chose to work with him. We had the family and wedding party stay the night before as well as the night of the wedding, which lent us an intimate and real ‘getaway’ feel to our weekend.” And she clearly agrees with Joe Jr.’s daughter about his larger-than-life personality. “Joe is the shining light at the center of the Inn; he’s very excitable and personable, making you feel like you’re the first and only wedding he’s ever hosted.”
With weddings added to their services, Joe and Kathy stay busy raising, hosting, employing and uniting families, one generation at a time. Fortunately, they have their own arsenal of young people to help out. Along with Madeleine, their two teenagers, Joseph III and Isabella, work summers at Anne’s, along with a handful of Skidmore College and local high school students. “You can see Anne in Joe, and you can see Joe in the kids. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” says Michael Blowen, a retired sports journalist for the Boston Globe, who’s been coming to the Inn every year since 1992. He even hatched the idea for his racehorse rescue foundation, Old Friends, right on the front porch. Old Friends now cares for well over 100 retired racehorses, and the Inn hosts its annual fundraiser. “I think in a lot of ways Joe personifies Saratoga,” Blowen says. “Saratoga’s got depth, it’s got culture, it’s hearty, it’s appreciated by a wide variety of people. I think Joe is all that.” Blowen goes a step further, paying Bokan maybe the greatest compliment of them all—at least, if you’re a Saratogian: “I know Mary Lou Whitney is the Queen of Saratoga, but I think if Joey’s not quite the King, he’s at least Sir Lancelot. He’s part of the round table.”
To this day, Joe is still thankful for that second wind that rebranding the Inn brought him and his family business. “If I hadn’t changed the name, I think I’d be out of business by now,” he says. “It just completely rewrote the future of this place.” Maybe you can be a part of that future the next time you stay in Saratoga.
A shortened version of this feature ran in the “I Do!” Issue of saratoga living magazine.