’20s hotel exhibit roars in at Saranac Laboratory Museum
SARANAC LAKE — You can ring the bell for service at the front desk, dance the Charleston in the ballroom, pose for a mugshot with gangster “Legs” Diamond in the speakeasy and peek at vintage underwear in the bedroom.
You can also test your knowledge of Jazz Age slang and put stylish outfits on paper dolls of flappers and swells.
The Saranac Laboratory Museum’s John Black Room has been transformed with the trappings of an art deco hotel to host Historic Saranac Lake’s new exhibit, “The Roaring Twenties.” HSL members and guests got to check it out at an opening reception Tuesday evening, and it opens to the public today.
On Monday afternoon, HSL staffers Amy Catania and Chessie Monks-Kelly were still hard at work putting the finishing touches on signs and displays. Catania, the organization’s executive director, explained that it’s been in the works for more than two years, and that it was inspired by the 2013 purchase and ongoing renovation of the Hotel Saranac.
“Really when the hotel started happening, when that all kind of got in the news, we were planning our next exhibit and sort of brainstorming different things,” Catania said. Board member Linda Jackson suggested that the hotel, which was built in 1927, would make the ’20s a good topic. Jackson happened to be Winter Carnival queen at the time, Catania said, “so you listen to people like that.”
But they didn’t jump on the idea right away, Catania said. It sounded complicated. They looked for an entry point and at first leaned toward a department store theme, where they could show off 1920s clothing, tennis rackets and other consumer goods.
“And then we went, ‘Oh, duh, hotel,'” Catania said.
“We get to tell some of that story through the various spaces of the hotel,” said Monks-Kelly, HSL’s museum administrator. “So like in the bedroom, we talk about changing clothing styles and what that says about the culture. Of course there’s a speakeasy, where we talk about Prohibition, and the various ways around Prohibition.”
There’s a ballroom where old films show people dancing various forms of the Charleston, a craze at the time. Visitors can learn to do one form using a rug with color-coded footprints and arrows. What that rug doesn’t show is how high you’re supposed to kick up your heels.
Hotels also sometimes had shoe-shine stands, which the exhibit uses to explain African-American workforce roles of the time, as well as how the industry for women’s shoes exploded as hemlines rose.
Hotels also had barber and beauty shops for the boisterous decade’s daring new hairstyles. To show a woman’s wavy bob, the exhibit uses a photo of HSL board member Dot Fobare’s mother.
Nationwide and locally, the ’20s were flush with fancy hotels.
“There was a big boom because automobilers were traveling, and all across the country there were Main Street booms, and people had money and free time,” Monks-Kelly said.
Catania noted that “Saranac Lake’s real hotel boom happens earlier. Vacationers were coming to the Adirondacks before the turn of the century. There’s some really big ones that were even gone by then.”
But many of the Saranac Lake area’s big old hotels were still around in the 1920s, including giants that would soon be gone: the Riverside, the Algonquin and Paul Smith’s, for instance. They’re all documented in this exhibit with photos and relics, such as a silver cup from the Algonquin and the Riverside’s room door numbers.
Saranac Lake at its peak had 30 hotels, Catania said. Of those, the Hotel Saranac — famously declared “fireproof” upon construction — is the only one left.
HSL used two humanities grants to hire a hotel history consultant, Molly Berger, to help them plan. One thing they learned from that, Catania said, is how common it was for a big brick hotel to be built in the middle of a 1920s American downtown. They also learned that few of those hotels still operate.
Kent Streed from Pendragon Theatre helped HSL replicate a hotel in this room, using wooden panels as walls. Tom Seymour built those panels. Maria DeAngelo, her daughter Morgan Paul and high school student Hannah Gochenaur painted them over the winter. After collecting artifacts for a year or so, Monks-Kelly started putting the exhibit together in April.
Funding assistance came from the Hotel Saranac and its owner, Roedel Companies, as well as Community Bank, Catania said at Tuesday’s reception.
Fondness for the Hotel Saranac runs deep here. Kay Best, who grew up in Saranac Lake, said at Tuesday’s reception that she loves the new exhibit specifically because “it’s getting me ready for the Hotel Saranac to open, which we can’t wait for it to happen.” She has distinct memories of walking through the hotel’s street-level arcade, which Paul Smith’s College closed during its ownership but which the Roedels are restoring.
“When I step into the lobby and step up into that long corridor, I’m expecting it to sound like I did when I was a kid,” Best said. “When you opened the door, the air was different, and the walk was sort of a slant up to go up to the front, and the sound on the floor, you remember, and you can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like with the new hotel.”