Grand Hotel Historian Puts 125th Anniversary in Perspective
This year marks the 125th anniversary of Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and its 126th season of operation. Built in 1887 in just 93 days, Grand Hotel has remained among Mackinac Island’s best-known landmarks and most significant draws for visitors, and the hotel’s concierge and historian, Bob Tagatz, has made it his mission to tell its unique story.
Grand Hotel is one of the last of its kind. Beginning in the midnineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution came to full flower and its pioneers to vast fortunes. Their children became the first generation of Americans to be born into wealth outside of the old agricultural aristocracy. Living in cities like Chicago and Detroit, they sought to escape the summer heat, pollen, smog, and industrial filth that surrounded them, and transportation companies met the demand by constructing elaborate resorts. Most took the form of enormous, wood-framed hotels removed from the urban centers, places of elegance and escape appealing to a Victorian upper class.
It was to these massive hotels that Bob Tagatz traces his interest in Grand Hotel. A Florida native, Mr. Tagatz’s first encounter with the wood-framed Victorian resorts came along the banks of the Halifax River.
“I was kayaking on the river when I saw Florida’s largest wood-frame vernacular hotel, the Hotel Ormond,” he said. “I wanted to stay there because all my heroes had stayed there. I made a reservation there, and it closed after 80-some years.”
Mr. Tagatz spent the next seven years trying to save the hotel, living in it, studying its architecture and history, and serving on a board whose sole objective was to preserve it. Ultimately, his ef forts met with failure, the hotel was demolished in 1992, but by then he had acquired a deep and abiding appreciation for the hotel and its role in American history.
Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island was such a place. Built by the Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Company for $250,000, the hotel was constructed at breakneck speed in the spring of 1887 to be open for the summer season. Hotel management was so certain of meeting its deadline, it rented rooms for the summer before construction began.
Mackinac Island had many factors in its favor as a vacation destination.
“It had cool breezes and clean water,” said Mr. Tagatz said, “two things that were hard to come by where most of the guests were coming from.”
Guests were attracted through an ambitious, and often wildly exaggerated, advertising campaign which portrayed Grand Hotel as being more than a mile in length with fountains “large enough to canoe in.” Owing to the cultural desire of its target audience to travel and see unique and marvelous locations, the campaign worked.
In the 1890s, James Hayes, among the hotel’s most important managers, decided he needed more than “clean rooms, good food, and a beautiful place” to attract more guests, so Grand Hotel began offering plenty of live music, entertainment such as baseball, dog races, and dancing, and electricity for two hours each night. Electricity was rare in that era, particularly for a place as remote as Mackinac Island.
The early 20th century brought dark times to the hotel. Prohibition and the World War hurt business, as did the collapse of the great monopolies that fueled the estates of many of its guests. To survive, Grand Hotel sold alcoholic beverages and hosted a gambling operation, neither activity legal, but both highly lucrative. Such operations were enough to keep it running until the Great Depression of the 1930s, which represented the second economic crisis the hotel faced.
During the Depression, W. Stewart Woodfill purchased the hotel, having worked his way up from the position of desk clerk years earlier. He ensured the hotel remained the showplace it was intended to be, and his nephew, R. Daniel Musser, Jr., and Mr. Musser’s family, have continued that stewardship.
Mr. Tagatz first came to Grand Hotel during the years he tried to save Hotel Ormond. Later, while on a three-month kayak trip that traced the route of the French voyageurs of the 18th century, Mr. Tagatz compiled a list of careers he would like to try. The second item on that list was to work for one of the wood-frame hotels he had already devoted so much of his energy to.
“I applied to Grand Hotel three times before they hired me,” he said. “I had never worked for an open hotel before, my only prior experience came from trying to save the Hotel Ormond. They didn’t need a hotel historian and I had no other hotel skills, but finally, after that third try, they said, ‘Well, alright, we’ll put you in guest services.’ I wanted to work with the people, with the guests, so 17 years ago I became the oldest, fattest bellhop in the hotel.”
His new job increased his interest in Grand Hotel’s past, and he accumulated 600 pages of notes on its history. With this knowledge, he delivered his first Grand Hotel history lecture to the Musser family, who quickly recognized the value Mr. Tagatz brought to their establishment.
“After that,” he noted, “they figured it would be good to have something like that a of couple times a week.”
To this day Mr. Tagatz continues to tell the story of Grand Hotel, Mr. Woodfill, and the Musser family to guests through his historical lectures.
“People come again and again to this hotel, and when they attend one of my lectures, it helps them get to know it even better. It enlightens a place that they already have a connection to.”
He doesn’t load his talks with names and dates.
“I’m a huge fan of first-hand history,” he said. “I want to tell people the story, not just the chronology. I talk about the stories of individuals and their experiences with the hotel. Dr. John McCabe was instrumental in helping me gather my information, and Mackinac Island State Park has been a great resource, as well.”
Among the most important personal stories is that of W. Stewart Woodfill. Mr. Woodfill guided the hotel through the darkness of the Depression and World War II, during which time tourism on Mackinac Island dropped 90%. He envisioned, however, the tourism explosion that would come with the war’s end and strove to prepare the Island and Grand Hotel for that day.
In 1951, Grand Hotel finally turned a profit as people flocked to the Island in unprecedented numbers. During this time, more than before, Grand Hotel enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with the Mackinac Island community, bringing in visitors who bolstered the economy of the town and receiving downtown visitors who wanted to look inside the hotel.
In 1989, R. Daniel Musser, Jr., Mr. Woodfill’s nephew, became president of the hotel and he sought to modernize and enlarge the old building without sacrificing its historic integrity. The decor and facilities were updated in keeping with the vision of Mr. Hayes, that the hotel must be more than clean rooms, good food and a beautiful place. Vibrant paint and wallpaper brought the colors of the hotel’s garden inside. State-of-the-art plumbing, electrical, safety features were installed, and even air conditioning, televisions, and WIFI are included.
“So what we see from our history here,” Mr. Tagatz said, “is that by adapting to the times while still embracing everything in our past, this hotel has been able to thrive, where most of the others like it have fallen apart. We keep this hotel in top condition, because that’s the only way you can justify asking the top price, and it’s only by asking the top price that you can keep a great old building like this together.
“We were originally founded to serve the elite, the very upper class, but that’s different now,” he added. “We’re here for the middle class and for the groups that come through. For a lot of people, this is the nicest hotel they’ll stay in, and we want to make sure they have the best experience they can have.”
Mr. Musser officially retired from his management of the hotel after 60 years, although he continues to come to work daily and serves as chairman of the hotel. His son, R. Daniel Musser III, is its president, while his daughter, Mimi Cunningham, is a vice president and manages the hotel’s retail operations. His wife, Amelia, has been a great influence in the hotel’s appearance, Mr. Tagatz said, as has Carleton Varney, president and owner of Dorothy Draper & Co., whose decorating talents are evident throughout the hotel.
“I originally intended to just come here for two years so I could write a book about the place, then move on. But it was refreshing to me to see the difference in the way some operators were just trying to keep an old building up and the way the Mussers were taking care of their hotel that I couldn’t leave,” Mr, Tagatz said, “I fell in love with the Island, with the hotel, and the Mussers have been so supportive of my efforts ,and I’m very grateful to them. It’s a rare thing to find owners and management that are so interested in preserving the history of their building, not just one era of it, but all of it. One of my favorite things here is seeing an older couple dancing in the Terrace Room at night and knowing that they’re reliving a memory they made here years and years ago, and then seeing a couple kids dancing and realizing that they’re making that original memory right then.”
“I hold Grand Hotel up as a shining example of what these hotels could be. The Mussers are the ultimate hosts, and the way they’ve embraced their history while continuing to provide for the modern guest is amazing. I think it’s very frustrating to see a place turn its back on its heritage, and the way Grand Hotel embraces its own is one of our great strengths. A place doesn’t get to celebrate its 125th anniversary without getting that right.”
Mr. Tagatz has authored or contributed to several works on Grand Hotel, and continues to deliver his lectures on the building’s history to the public, hotel guests, and groups throughout the season.