Thursday, July 10, 2003

Blog Chequamegon.

I forgot to mention yesterday one more detail of the Bridge Inn of Tomahawk, Wis., an establishment that the decades cannot improve. Upon check-in, I got an actual metal door key, with a diamond-shaped plastic key chain attachment that had the room number on it.

The Bridge Inn, however, was only a way station on the trek north. In looking for a place to stay on the south shore of Lake Superior, I came across the Hotel Chequamegon in Ashland. We could have stayed in Bayfield, but my impression was that the accommodations there were overpriced, due to the resort town's summertime popularity, and possibly the town itself would be crowded. Ashland, on the other hand, didn't seem to share Bayfield's popularity, though it's only about 15 miles away, and on the same body of water. Rooms at the Chequamegon were $125 (lake view), and as it turned out, I've paid more and gotten less in many other places.

Besides, what I read about the Hotel Chequamegon intrigued me. This, for example, on the hotel's Web site: "This $3.5 million, 65-room Victorian-style hotel held its grand opening in November 1986. The decor and furnishings of the hotel recreate the elegance of the original hotel, which was located on the Ashland County Courthouse grounds, just a half block southwest. The hotel [however] is not a replica of the original.

"The original hotel was built in 1877 by the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Ashland was a transportation hub for lumbering, quarrying and mining industries. Throngs of tourists headed for the Lake Superior shores for the summer. Celebrities, such as John D. Rockefeller, William Cullen Bryant and Marshall Field, were among the guests of the hotel until fire damaged the building in 1904. The hotel was damaged by fire twice until its demise on New Year's Day 1958.

"The dream of recreating the hotel was that of Don Smith, native of Ashland and founder of the local hospital and several other area businesses... Vern Hanson of the firm of Arvid Elness Architects of Minneapolis designed the new hotel. The firm has a long experience of preserving a dialogue with the architectural past. Sue Kuester, local designer and co-owner of the Designers Outlet of Ashland, chose the furnishings and wallcoverings to reinforce the spirit of the time.

"In an attempt to savor the past, the wood used in the reception lobby was salvaged from nearby ore-docks. The clock behind the front desk is an antique from the original hotel on loan from the Ashland Historical Museum. Many of the antiques pieces in the parlor are donated from local residents and represent Victorian influence."

Indeed they do. After the faceless chain hotel represented by Microtel, and the post-WW II vibe given off by the Bridge Inn, walking into the Hotel Chequamegon evoked something else all together. Something we only know, or think we know, from descriptions and photos and museum artifacts. High Victorian design. Though the hotel isn't an exact replica of the original -- and I know it can't be, codes wouldn't allow it -- it doesn't need to be.

The remarkable thing is that the building allows you, an inhabitant of the early 21st century, to experience a Victorian hotel they way the Victorians did, as something new. After all, visitors to the original hotel in the last years of the 1800s didn't seek it out because it evoked a quaint old time. They wanted the latest thing on the shore of Lake Superior, and they got it.

Better still, the hotel had a excellent set of large wooden decks out back, with views of Chequamegon Bay, a tiny finger of Lake Superior that would qualify as a good-sized lake on its own, complete with a small marina, and what's left of the formerly enormous Ashland iron-ore docks not far to the left. Or, if you look away from the water, you can see the vaulting white clapboard sides of the hotel itself. We took the hotel's no-extra-charge breakfasts out on the decks, and ate one lunch there; all delightful meals, despite the Wisconsin flies, largely because of the setting (the food was good, too, especially the scones -- where did they get scones that good?).


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