Restoration of historic St. Clair Inn spurs community revival
St. Clair — Jeff Katofsky looks out at the blue expanse of the St. Clair River as a freighter glides by. He says he will be here, drink in hand, at the corner of this balcony of the future Sky Bar restaurant this summer when the St. Clair Inn reopens.
Katofsky, the inn's owner, is resurrecting the famed hotel that was built in 1926 and shuttered in 2014. Almost five years of planning and construction, more than 250 dumpsters and $40 million later, the 109-room inn is expected to reopen to the public in July with the hope of it once again becoming the hotspot for community meetings, corporate retreats and romantic getaways in the region.
"St. Clair never did better than when the St. Clair Inn thrived in its heyday," said Jeff Bohm, chairman of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, who grew up a few houses from the inn. "The town was busy. The mall and shops did well. It’s been the anchor for the city of St. Clair for a long time. It's going to be a destination again."
Walk through the front door of this English Tudor-inspired lodge, and if all goes as planned it won't look much different from when the St. Clair Rotary Club raised $180,000 ($2.6 million today) to open the inn. Based on old photos, newspaper clippings and testimonies of former employees, contractors are restoring to its former glory the original building that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. It will have the comfort of modern amenities to match the Marriott International Tribute Portfolio brand under which it will operate.
Rates still are under discussion, but guests likely can expect to spend a couple of hundred dollars or more per night, comparable to four- and five-star resorts.
But this "labor of love," as Katofsky says, is more than the inn and the five restaurants and bars it will house. After officially acquiring the hotel in 2015, Katofsky bought the former Harrington Inn in Port Huron and the closed St. Clair Middle School to support his vision for the inn.
"I live in California, where it's beautiful; this is unbelievable," the 55-year-old developer said. "But when you live up here, you don't understand your own real estate. So until you do, I'm going to keep buying it."
The St. Clair Inn opened when companies such as Chris-Craft, Hacker and Gar Wood manufactured powerboats along the river. The Rotary Club raised the money to build a 60-room hotel that was worthy of a community at the center of Michigan's boating industry.
On Sept. 22, 1926, the inn opened as the first hotel in the country with central air conditioning. For generations, it bustled, offering many teenagers their first jobs and Metro Detroiters a haven close to home.
It held meetings for the Kiwanis, Lions and investment clubs. Major corporations in the region, including the Detroit Three, held retreats there. The Detroit Tigers visited often. There were around 20 weddings every weekend, said Mike LaPorte, who began working at the restaurant when he was 14 years old cutting the grass; he worked his way to general manager, a position he held for 20 years until 1994.
"It was a meeting place for everybody," said LaPorte, who now owns The Voyageur restaurant, bar and bowling alley in St. Clair. "It was a lot of fun. It wasn't work. The guests would walk into the town where there was a lot of shops and restaurants. People loved it. That's going to come back."
After a series of different owners and broken promises, the inn fell into disrepair and closed nearly 90 years after it opened. LaPorte said he tried to buy it twice, but it "wasn't in the cards."
Then came Katofsky.
He acquired the inn by happenstance. Katofsky and his business partner, Rick Barecca, got into a legal dispute over three other properties in Florida and South Carolina with Remo Polselli, the former St. Clair Inn's owner.
A settlement allowed Katofsky, a trial lawyer, to buy three properties in Michigan for under $25 million: the St. Clair Inn, what is now Marriott's Delta Hotel at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the 350-acre Sugar Loaf Ski Lodge in Suttons Bay near Traverse City, a yearslong project Katofsky describes as "building a town" with a hotel and retail.
Katofsky visited the dilapidated St. Clair Inn on a snowy day for the first time in 2015.
"I always say there are four rules in real estate," he said. "You always hear the first three: location, location, location. The fourth one is don’t fall in love with your real estate. We broke the fourth rule. This is our baby. This is for my kids and Rick’s kids."
Along 1,000 feet of coastline, the inn rises in its expansion. There will be a new outdoor pool and Jacuzzi with a Sand Bar for guests to buy drinks; an outdoor stage for weddings and community events such as jazz festivals and theater performances for crowds of up to 600; and a boardwalk that will allow guests to walk from Palmer Park to the south to a sandy private man-made beach at the inn.
Across North Riverside Avenue, a retail location with a spa, fitness center and Starbucks will open.
Inside the inn, guests will check in at a re-creation of the hotel's original lobby desk connected to the Fireside Lounge, whose original woodwork, which is still there, some claim was made from Viking ships.
Guests and community members who venture further will be able to dine at 1926, a white-tablecloth restaurant. The Sapphire Room, separated from The Dive sports bar by a glass wine-cellar, will host high tea in the afternoon. The old piano bar will house the Prohibition bar, a nod to how alcohol had been smuggled across the border there.
"We’re going to take a lot of the artifacts we’ve been finding and put it in here," Katofsky said. "It’s almost museum-like, a little creepy. I tell people, when you’re drinking in here, I want you to feel like you’re breaking the law."
Those artifacts don't include the body of Jimmy Hoffa, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters president who disappeared in 1975. Legend claims he is buried under the inn's north tower, though the construction workers have not found his remains.
Katofsky said he plans to pay homage to the inn's history inside a secret room in Prohibition that guests can access only by dialing the correct phone number in the old telephone booth down the hall.
The 300-person ballroom overlooking the river is double the space of the original after developers moved the pool outside. There also are two formal conference rooms, a few private dining and party rooms and three new 2,000-square-foot cottages built with bridal parties in mind.
On the opposite side of the hotel, there are king and queen rooms as well as double-queen suites with river views or a small garden patio. Some rooms are small given that the developers could not move the walls of the historic inn, but they blew out the eight-foot ceilings and raised them with A-frames.
Katofsky added that $6.2 million in quasi-government PACE loans are supporting investment into energy-efficient systems, geothermal heating and other green initiatives. The restaurants will serve organic, locally sourced foods.
The Michigan Environmental Quality Department granted $200,000 to the inn and loaned $200,000 to the city for environmental clean-up from a historic tannery on the site.
The inn also received $3.2 million in federal historic tax credits, which are potential deductions against profits and do not include state tax breaks. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. did not approve incentives for the project, Katofsky said.
The St. Clair Inn's two-story kitchen has space to age meat. Its bakery and offices will be at the former middle school, which also will have community auditorium space and 40 apartment units Katofsky plans to offer to the 250 hotel workers at cost.
The Harrington Inn, which will take its original Hotel Harrington name, will house laundry facilities for the inn. Guests there at the six-story Best Western Premier hotel, which could open before the end of the year, will be able to take a shuttle and enjoy the St. Clair Inn's amenities, too. That 82-room hotel will have two restaurants, as well.
The city of St. Clair is expected to provide a 12-year, $2.1 million temporary reassessment stop to avoid property tax increases on the inn's property, Katofsky said. But the promise of a reopened inn, said Mayor Bill Cedar Jr., already has helped bring new business to town, including several restaurants, a home goods store and apartments.
"There's a lot going on," Cedar said. "A lot of it has been to the energy being created by the St. Clair Inn. It's feeding that success."