2018-07-14 / News

Bob Tagatz Reveals History of Grand Hotel in New Tours

By Marina Lindland


Tuesday, July 10, John Owen of St. Joseph holds the only hotel key in existence to bear the name of his great-grandfather, John Oliver Plank, the first proprietor of Grand Hotel. Tuesday, July 10, John Owen of St. Joseph holds the only hotel key in existence to bear the name of his great-grandfather, John Oliver Plank, the first proprietor of Grand Hotel. Grand Hotel must have modern amenities to meet guest needs, but it also has Bob Tagatz on hand to help them keep in touch with its 131-year history.

Mr. Tagatz this year fills the rather unique position of full-time hotel historian and will conduct history tours he promises will enhance guests’ understanding of the spirit of Grand Hotel.

“To my knowledge, there’s only one other hotel historian in the country,” he said. “Needless to say, it’s a pretty niche field.”

For the past 23 years, Mr. Tagatz split his time between history lectures and other duties at the hotel.

“I worked at the concierge desk for a while,” he said. “I would be working the desk, helping guests, then I’d go out on the porch and give a lecture for about an hour, then I’d go back to the desk. I’d be back and forth all day, really.”


Grand Hotel Historian Bob Tagatz next to one of the notable riding boot lamps found in the Audubon Wine Room Tuesday, July 10. Grand Hotel Historian Bob Tagatz next to one of the notable riding boot lamps found in the Audubon Wine Room Tuesday, July 10. He says his new tours, some still being developed, encompass many facets of the hotel and the Island.

An art, antiques, and interior design tour focuses on the hotel’s dĂ©cor, from its patterned carpet to the eclectic collection of antiques put on display throughout the building. There is so much to see, he said, that he doesn’t have to highlight the same things each time.

“I tailor the tour a lot to the group that I have,” he said. “Some people are a lot more interested in the art and some guests really have a thing for antiques. It all depends on the day.”

A primary example of this tailoring occurred July 10, the 131st birthday of the Grand Hotel, during a public history lecture.

“It seemed like those people needed a good laugh,” he said, “so I focused on more of the silly things.”

There is an architectural tour of West Bluff cottages, which is Mr. Tagatz’s favorite. The two-hour walking tour goes in and around Victorian homes, including Pine Cottage.

“It’s just like stepping back in time,” he said. “The architecture is just so incredibly beautiful. Everyone can go in and see what a Victorian home was like to live in. You really are immersed in the history.”

He plans two others, a horse culture tour, which will teach guests about the use of horses on Mackinac Island and include a series of historic carriages, and a cemetery tour, which will take guests through the Island cemeteries, focusing on people buried there who shaped the history of the hotel.

While the tours will educate, Mr. Tagatz stressed that it is more important to him that his tour guests understand the essence of Grand Hotel.

“Sure, there will be dates and numbers in the tours and lectures, but this isn’t about memorization,” he said. “That’s not the important part. I really want people to understand who we are, where we came from, and what Grand Hotel is all about.”

To fully understand and appreciate the personality of Grand Hotel, Mr. Tagatz said, it is necessary to know about people who helped make Grand Hotel what it is today, but he also does not shy away from the darker side of the hotel’s history.

“Some of the things that happened here are pretty nasty,” said Mr. Tagatz. “I’ll be giving a tour and I’ll see some of the guests actually wince. It’s gruesome, but it needs to be said. That stuff is a part of us, too.”

Mr. Tagatz’s obsession with the history of Grand Hotel extends past his work. He has a collection of more than 2,000 postcards, letters, journals, and news articles mentioning the hotel.

On the 131st birthday of the hotel’s opening Tuesday, July 10, Mr. Tagatz gave a public history lecture about how Grand Hotel was financed, built, and owned in the years prior to World War II.

An interesting story about that history comes from St. Joseph resident John Owen, great-grandson of John Oliver Plank, first proprietor of Grand Hotel. Mr. Plank was a short man with a short temper and a very particular management style, he said. With little profit coming in, the other investors wanted him out. Mr. Plank agreed to leave, but he also wanted to be paid back all the money he had invested.

“Needless to say,” Mr. Owen said, “they didn’t part on good terms.”

Most all of the items that bore Mr. Plank’s name have been disposed of or destroyed, but Mr. Tagatz owns the one remaining hotel key with Mr. Plank’s name on it.

Mr. Tagatz was personally involved in the redecoration of the Audubon Wine Room and knows the story behind every piece of furniture there.

“Take the boot lamps,” he said. “Those were originally designer boots form London. (Hotel interior designer) Carleton Varney, he was decorating the whole room. He said they didn’t look right, so we ended up sending those boots back to London. We found all these boots at different auctions or estate sales, all scuffed up like Varney wanted them.”

While tours are for guests only, free history lectures are given to the public on the Front Porch. These lectures cover a variety of topics, from Prohibition and organized crime associated with Grand Hotel, to the movies that have been filmed on Mackinac Island.

Mr. Tagatz knows that being a hotel historian at Grand Hotel is the perfect job for him.

“It’s unfortunate to everyone else that if I learn something new about history, I feel the need to inflict it on others,” he said with a laugh.

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