If you’re an old soul or history buff who dreams of turning back the clock to escape to another century, walking through the doors of The Inn at Saratoga is about as close as you can get.
As the cold winds blow down Broadway, the cheery hotel with its toast- and pumpkin-colored exterior welcomes guests into its Side Room, a former lobby that’s been carefully curated to whisk you back more than 150 years. There’s a glowing fireplace, chandeliers, an oh-so-elegant red velvet banquette, antique furniture and china, and a 1912 Steinway. In the morning, overnight guests enjoy a breakfast buffet in this exquisite Victorian parlor; in the evening, it’s a restaurant that’s open to the public.
Cocktails anyone? Bee’s Knees and Aviation, gin concoctions that were all the rage in the Roaring Twenties, are crafted in the hotel’s intimate Tavern.
The Inn at Saratoga, the oldest continuously operating lodging in town, turns 180 years old this year. On this milestone birthday it seemed as good a time as any to celebrate the rich history of this downtown jewel. If only its walls could talk—for perspective, the hotel predates the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. When it first swung open its doors in 1847 (there are no known records of how the building had been used since being built in 1843), as a boarding house for ailing visitors hoping for a mineral water cure, there was no Saratoga Race Course, Adelphi Hotel or Canfield Casino.
When Bob Israel, a man with a passion for restoring Saratoga’s historic buildings, bought the hotel in 2003, it was the Coachman Motor Inn. Since then, he and his daughter, Liz, the hotel’s owner/operator, have passionately worked their time-traveling magic.
Both overnight guests and the locals who drop in for drinks or dinner relish the atmosphere—and many tell the inevitable ghost stories that surround a building that’s staring down two centuries’ worth of guests. “They love the feeling that they’ve been transported to a bygone era,” says Liz. Alas, her brother, Adam, assures that there are no ghosts—a ghost-hunter once checked.
The renovation of the Side Room was the daughter-dad duo’s labor of love.
“We wanted it to be a real historic building, not a modernized historic building,” Liz says. “Places like that are slowing slipping away, and we don’t want to ever let that happen. We really wanted to bring it back to its original glory.”
Without photos of the original lobby, Bob and Liz researched the hotel’s history, consulted experts on turn-of-the-century décor, and then let their imaginations take flight. “We looked at pictures of historic hotels and parlors, sitting rooms and reading rooms,” Liz says. Layers of wallpaper were scraped off, and the room was painted a deep, rich terracotta. And Bob was finally able to use the walnut paneling he salvaged as a teenager from a shuttered men’s club in Newburgh, where he grew up.
“We pulled up the carpet and discovered three inches of cement on top of the original hardwood floors,” says Liz. “We jackhammered out the cement. Because of the weight of it, the floors were bowed. So we had to jack up the floor from the basement. And we refinished those floors.”
Charming pieces of antique furniture were purchased at auctions, including from the Grand Union Hotel and United States Hotel, two epic lodgings from Saratoga’s past. (In fact, the owner of the building when it was the Everett House during the post-Civil War boom was the brother-in-law of the owner of the United States Hotel.) One particularly grand find: a rack near the bar that was once used for men to hang their top hats before entering the Grand Union’s ballroom.
“I love what we did in that room,” Liz says. The Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation applauded their efforts too, honoring the Inn with an award in 2016.
The inn sparkles with holiday parties this time of year, and if Bob’s around he’s known to happily regale his guests with a story or two about the historic inn’s past. “Dorothea Brownell and her sister were local historians and characters, and they knew a lot of the famous musicians that came through here,” begins one favorite about the Brownell Cottege, now an annex behind the hotel where guests warm up with gas-powered Franklin stoves right in their rooms. “They had one party to commemorate an orchid that blossomed once a year. It would come out and then it would die. And they’d have a big party with musicians there. Utah Phillips actually sang a story about the parties.”
And the renovations continue. During the winter and spring, the hotel will be updating its 42 rooms and suites, including the Brownell Cottage, where the aforementioned Dorothea and sis lived.
Downstairs, the vintage vibe pops up again in the Tavern, which is often alive with the sound of local musicians who love to play in the storied bar. And many signature cocktails are, of course, served in antique glassware.
Even in the restaurant, there’s a retro touch, and that’s Hannah’s Beef Brisket, which, no matter the season, is the most popular entrée.
“That’s my grandmother’s recipe,” Liz says of the slow-roasted meat bathed in a wine-and-tomato sauce. “It’s a comfort food, a great dish to eat when you are sitting in that cozy room by the fire.”