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From its beginning over 150 years ago as a waterfront beach house to the family-restored hotel it is today, the Island House has opened its doors to over a million tourists from around the world. With its handsome Victorian structure and family-owned intimacy, Mackinac Island's oldest hotel is a tradition not be missed.
Originally constructed for Charles O'Malley in 1852 as a beachfront resort, the Island House was one of the first summer hotels on Mackinac Island. In 1865, Captain Henry Van Allen, a Great Lakes skipper, purchased the resort, thus beginning a family tradition that would last nearly 75 years. During this time, he moved the hotel about 300 feet off the shore to its present location to allow for future expansion. Under Captain Van Allen's direction, the Island House was deemed the island's "best family hotel" as Mackinac Island was voted the most popular summer destination in America.
Upon his passing, Captain Van Allen bestowed the property to his daughter, Mrs. Rose Van Allen Webster, who became proprietor of the hotel in 1892. Together with her husband, whom she met while he was stationed at Fort Mackinac, the Websters added the distinctive looking East and West wings in 1895 and 1912. The Island House enjoyed the benefits of these additions for the next 25 years as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and New York socialites were treated to afternoon high teas and full orchestra ballroom dancing. Mrs. Webster retained ownership of the Island House until her passing in 1938.
After Mrs. Webster's death, the hotel stood vacant for several years, as its maintenance and taxes were too burdensome for her heirs. In 1945, the state took over the property and for a brief period the hotel was used to house the Moral Rearmament movement which came about just after World War II. The group moved to Mission Point two years later and the hotel again stood vacant until 1949.
Hoping to restore the property, a group of investors formed the Island House Incorporated in 1949. Despite the best attempts of various stockholders, by 1969 the Island House had deteriorated so greatly that the chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park, W.F. Doyle, believed it would need to be torn down. It was not until 1972 that the Island House would return to its early popularity. Three of Mackinac Island's well-known businessmen, Harry Ryba, son James, and son-in-law Victor Callewaert, recognized the Island House's status as a Michigan landmark.
They purchased the lease to the hotel and vowed to return the Island House to its original grandeur. Throughout its incredible restoration, every step was taken to preserve the striking architectural features of the hotel exterior, including its many columns, porch spindles, gables, windows and door styles. During this two-year project the Island House was closed to the general public, but re-opened with a spirited celebration on June 23, 1972. The final triumph came on August 11, 1973, when the hotel was acknowledged by the State of Michigan as a Michigan Historical Landmark.
Since the time of the original restoration, the Island House has undergone continuous renovations to provide the best accommodations possible for guests. From the addition of an elevator to the introduction of air conditioning, the Island House prides itself on having some of the best amenities on the Island.
After extensive renovations during the 1980s, the next major change for the Island House came in 1995. The property underwent an extensive archeological dig to assure there were no burial grounds or fossils. This cleared the way for the first addition to the hotel since 1912. This 5,400 square foot addition resulted in an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna and three suites. Also included in this was the Ice House Bar & Grill. The restaurant was named after the Island's oldest ice house located on the northwest corner of the property.
In this same year, the 1852 Grill Room was reconfigured, remodeled and made handicap-accessible with the addition of an elevator. To accommodate all guests, an elevator was also added to the veranda making the main areas of the hotel barrier free. Mackinac Island's oldest hotel now complies with all ADA regulations. Today the Island House is owned and operated by the Callewaert family.
The Island House is the only hotel on Mackinac Island that is located within the pristine boundaries of the Mackinac Island State Park–1,700 acres of the best that Michigan's natural resources have to offer. With its beautifully renovated guestrooms and breathtaking views of the marina and Mackinac Harbor, the Island House Hotel offers the best of all possible worlds–past and present–and a timeless escape from the ordinary.
The Island House Hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Excerpted and expanded from my book "Built To Last: 100+Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi," AuthorHouse 2013.