Grand Hotel prepares for 130th season of awed guests

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Mackinac Island — The Grand Hotel is packed with people — even though a single guest has yet to register this season.

More than 450 employees are repairing, renovating and prepping the world-famous landmark for its soft opening this weekend. With the hotel beginning its 130th season, the work is crucial.

Hundreds of signature geraniums are planted. Hundreds of gallons of white paint opened. Awnings — 150 of them — are cleaned and fixed. The world’s longest front porch repaired.

“Anyone who owns an older home knows how important it its to keep up with maintenance,” Grand Hotel President R.D. (Dan) Musser III said in a recent blog. “Fortunately, because the Grand Hotel is closed six months of the year, there is time to carry out those sometimes extensive renovations without inconveniencing our guests.”

One major renovation guests and visitors will see this summer is 340 feet of rebuilt porch. The other half of the 660-foot structure — where summer guests while away the hours in dozens of white rocking chairs looking over the Straits of Mackinac — will be completed next winter during the offseason.

The hotel has a staff of 30 to 40 people doing maintenance, repair and security all winter.

Chris Stoppel, owner of Advanced Awnings in Acme, has worked with the Grand Hotel for 25 years.

“We take them down in the fall, clean, repair or rebuild them, and reinstall them each spring,” Stoppel says of the mainly yellow window shades. It takes up to two weeks to place each awning on the hotel. This year, a day of snow slowed the crew briefly.

They vary in size from a huge awning for the Geranium Bar, to red-and-white striped canopies over the Jockey Club to individual distinctive yellow awnings over windows throughout the hotel.

As the awnings go up, 15,000 geraniums and other plants are put down into the flower beds on the grounds.

They all come from Mischel’s Nursery near Elk Rapids.

“We start the plants from cuttings in January,” owner John Mischel said. “They take about four weeks to root, then are transplanted in five weeks, and are watered and fertilized until full bloom.

“We load 15 carts into trucks, and make five separate trips to the freight dock in St. Ignace to deliver them” by ferry to the island, where dozens of loads are pulled by horses to the hotel.

Throughout the hotel, which has 390 rooms, crews are busy preparing for another tourism season.

Every cup in the kitchen is checked for chips or cracks, tons of fresh food is delivered by drays and horses, hydraulic lifts carry painters to the high reaches of the facade for fresh coats of paint.

The 260 flower boxes will be filled with 7 tons of potting soil.

Ed Glashaw painted steel braces for the flagpoles across the front of the hotel.

Flowers were cut and arranged by Laurie Williams for guest rooms, which were busy with crews dusting and making beds.

Donald “Duck” Andress, 81, put final repairs on upholstered chairs in his 26th year of furniture repair. There are more than 1,000 pieces of furniture in the hotel.

Rebecca Blanton sprayed the bottom of the Esther Williams Pool, which was named after the actress who starred in a 1947 film that featured the pool. It’ll take 50,000 gallons to fill.

“This year has been different than the past few,” said John Hulet, senior vice president of the hotel. “It’s been colder, making it more difficult to get some outdoor repairs and painting done. Thank goodness for our staff. We will be ready.”

The search for employees begins in January, with notices published in newspapers and magazines and on the web.

“Many of the hotel employees return year after year, giving the hotel a feel of an extended family amongst its staff,” Hulet said. “Some employees have been there each summer for decades. Probably 70 percent of our staff are return employees.”

Employees from 26 countries began arriving in early April. By June, there will be more than 700 employees at the hotel. The kitchen staff alone has more than 100 people producing 4,000 meals a day during the busy summer season.

Five U.S. presidents have stayed at the Grand Hotel, along with author Mark Twain and inventor Thomas Edison, congressmen, dignitaries and average folks.

It will host an estimated 130,000 guests this year, beginning when it opens officially Friday for its annual Mother’s Day weekend.

John Russell is a freelance photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.