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Monday, October 22, 2012

Time Travel to the Sagamore

From the Unpublished Vault Dept.: Back in the late 1980s, the glossy magazine Capital Region enjoyed a run of a few years, although it suffered under a wingnut editor who alienated successive waves of writers and staffers. I’d been contributing travel pieces at the time I submitted this for the Sept. 1987 issue, and the whimsy of my piece was appreciated not at all. I decided I’d had enough, and stopped writing for the magazine. Not surprisingly, it ceased publication soon thereafter.

TIME TRAVEL AT THE SAGAMORE is easy, and may be accomplished in any of a number of attractive locations. My favorites are the Veranda, mid-afternoon, just before high tea, and the boat dock, although it’s a little tougher at the Veranda because it was glassed in not too long ago and thus rather different from its architectural ancestry.

The Sagamore | May 16, 2004
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But now that I have the hang of it, I time travel from the Sagamore regularly, although my first trip occurred on Manhattan’s Canal Street one hot day last summer when I sat on a bench to take a break from the morning’s appointments, trying to imagine a less hectic time. . . .

It took several minutes to realize that there was not supposed to be an elevated train here; several more to appreciate the strange clothing of those around me. I still wasn’t fully comprehending my situation when a big, bearded man with a red face took my arm.

“Come along, son,” he insisted. “We don’t want to miss the boat.” He led me along Canal to the river – the North River, they called it, indicated by signs to the Jersey ferry at Pier 41.

We boarded the steamship Vibbard after my companion bought two fares for four dollars. The vessel was quaintly enormous, built of iron with three smokestacks lined abreast, wrought with the filigree of a slower age.

He led me to a charming lounge area that might as easily have been a large living room. The walls were mahogany, the seats were upholstered in a plush pink fabric. “I hope you don’t mind if we forego the train for once,” the man said, sighing as he sat. “I’m afraid I might choke on the dust on a day like this.”

The Vibbard left New York precisely at 8:30 that morning and eased up the Hudson at a pace so slow that I ground my teeth with impatience. But it was a voyage of views of the Hudson River Mansions and freshly-cooked meals, a style of travel utterly foreign to us of the jet generation.

Don’t be surprised when you find this same turn-of-the-century attitude in the Sagamore’s amenities. It’s a resort that shrewdly combines the old world with the up-to-date.

Up-to-date when you’re lounging in the Jacuzzi or holding your meeting at the conference center or slipping your perforated card-key into the lock on your door.  Old world when you’re cruising Lake George on The Morgan or slipping into a plush chair in the Trillium for an elegant supper. (You’ll find that in-house references to the restaurant omit the definite article, honoring the room and its herbaceous antecedent as “Trillium,” but, like the explorers of old, I can’t think of it without the “the.”)

A hotel’s sense of style is summed up in its foodservice. At its best, it requires the cooperation of the style-conscious guest. Dining at the Trillium? Don’t touch that wine bottle – your glass will be topped off as soon as the alert steward sees that there’s room for more. No wrestling with foil-wrapped butter patties here: you’re served a slice of the sweet stuff on your bread plate and re-served as needed. You’ll start your Trillium supper with complimentary caviar served on blinis. May I suggest a bone-dry champagne?

You can’t get much more Old World than High Tea. It’s a daily event in the Veranda, a glassed in room that overlooks the lake, offering a view that’s thrilling in summer and winter, so don’t overlook the cold months for a trip to this resort.

Which certainly wasn’t the case 100 years ago, when the trip from Manhattan to Albany alone lasted nine-and-a-half-hours. Today you can fly halfway around the globe in that time; during my time-travel voyage, it docked me in Albany at 6 PM.

Most of passengers streamed into the city, which I would have liked to explore, but my companion escorted me to the nearby depot and purchased passage on the Rensselaer & Saratoga Railroad to Glens Falls. The fares were just under four dollars. 

From there it was a horse-drawn stage to the town of Caldwell (now Lake George). It was the beginning of July, 1883, and the Sagamore was newly opened on Green Island, just outside of the village of Bolton Landing (nicknamed “the Huddle”). I had taken one of the standard Manhattan-to-Lake George journeys enjoyed year after year by millionaire and tradesman alike.

Bolton was founded out of the town of Thurman in 1799 as an area that bordered most of the western side of Lake George; a few years later the town of Hague split off as the north section. In 1881, Bolton was described as “the golden means between two extremes – a connecting link between the fashions and follies of the big hotels and the severely primitive life of an island camp.” Ironically, one of those island camps was being turned into a big hotel just as those words were published.

Myron Brown ran the successful Mohican House on the lake until his lease was cancelled; he asked a quartet of Philadelphia millionaires to back what was designed it to be the most lavish resort in the world. During its first years of business, the Sagamore charged about $20 per week, a lavish fee at the time.

It survived two devastating fires in those years but was thoroughly rebuilt at the time of the Depression thanks to some businessmen shrewd enough to avoid the stock market. And a new pastime was added: golf. With no room on the island proper, the hotel bought property on the mainland to install an 18-hole course that was the site for many years of the Sagamore Annual Invitation Golf Tournament each August.

Even then the hotel enjoyed looking back. During the late 1930s, a party at Ye Olde Sagamore recreated 19th century days complete with costumes – and no electricity.

By the 1950s it was used mostly as a convention center, with the annual Governor’s Conference held at the site in 1954. But it wasn’t until 1981, 100 years after construction first began, that a complete restoration was undertaken.

Developer Norman Wolgin bought the place and, quite simply, brought it back to its former glory. Even going so far as to put a hotel cruise ship back on the lake, a ship he built to his own specifications.

The community had become a different place. Many of the millionaires’ mansions had been torn down. Route 9N was clogged with motels (FREE COLOR TV!) and vacationers were accustomed to a serve-yourself holiday style.

But the new Sagamore clings, maybe a little stubbornly, to Brown’s original intentions (he is honored with Mr. Brown’s Cafe, one of the five restaurants in the house). True, there is a new Conference Center, and the island is ringed with condominiums. But the grand hotel is the heart of it.

Of course there’s a nightclub: Van Winkle’s, an amusing name when you consider that the disco set-up is probably the only area in the place that couldn’t have awakened from a decades-long slumber. It features live music, as do the more formal dining areas: you’ll hear pianists in the Veranda and Sagamore Dining Room, and talented composer/performer Allan Alexander plays lute and guitar in the Trillium.

From the perspective of 1883, then, there was much on the island to be recognized. My bearded companion was here to pay his respects to Myron Brown, but, not wishing to keep up my charade any longer, I strolled behind the great hotel to the water’s edge and sat on the dock to enjoy a view of the lake. I awakened at suppertime 104 years later, so I strolled up to the hotel and took a seat in the Trillium. It’s the only way to travel.

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