From a fourth-floor verandah of the Crescent Hotel & Spa in Eureka Springs, Ark. (pop. 2,278), owners Elise and Marty Roenigk admire miles of rolling Ozark Mountains and the Victorian-era village below. "It's the best view in town," says Elise, 68.
Since 1886, guests at the majestic limestone hotel atop Crescent Mountain have marveled at the view, though it was the therapeutic waters flowing from the ground that first lured them. The mineral springs, heralded for their healing powers, attracted visitors from across the nation who arrived by train to bathe in and drink the water. The hotel's horse-drawn coaches transported them up the steep and winding road to the Crescent.
Inside and out, the elegant hotel today looks much the same as it did 123 years ago and is designated a Historic Hotel of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of 223 such landmarks in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Then and now, guests at the Crescent register at an ornate hotel lobby desk, relax around a massive marble fireplace and ascend the original, four-story wooden staircase. The Roenigks, who bought the landmark hotel in 1997, rebuilt the fifth floor and rooftop observation tower that was destroyed by fire in the 1960s.
"We knew we wanted to restore the roof line," says Marty, 68, a longtime preservationist, noting that the couple spent $6 million on the refurbishing.
The hotel's colorful past includes stints as Crescent College, a women's boarding school from 1908 to 1932, and Baker Hospital for cancer patients from 1937 to 1940. Before his arrest, "Dr." Norman Baker made a fortune selling supposed cancer treatments concocted from tea brewed with corn silk.
While the Roenigks have modernized the hotel's wiring and plumbing, the glamour of yesteryear permeates its 76 guest rooms with their tall ceilings, antique dressers and French doors that open onto verandas lined with rocking chairs.
"The viewit pulls me out of the modern world," says guest Ben Bullock, 76, of Houston, Texas, as he breathes in the mountain air. "This is a grand hotel, the way it used to be."
Where presidents slept
The roster of grand Historic Hotels of America includes the luxurious 1888 oceanfront Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif. (pop. 24,100), and the seven-story wilderness castle, Mohonk Mountain House, built in 1869 in New Paltz, N.Y. (pop. 6,034). All are at least 50 years old and listed in, or eligible for, the National Register of Historic Places, or recognized locally as having historical significance.
"These hotels have all the creature comforts and technology, but also come with that distinctive history and architecture that made them legendary," says Thierry Roch, executive director of Historic Hotels of America. "With a room key comes a glimpse of the past."
In Suite 776 at The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote his famous 1933 inaugural speech that declares "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The Gettysburg Hotel, in Gettysburg, Pa. (pop. 7,490), served as President Dwight Eisenhower's national operations center in 1955 while he recuperated from a heart attack. Beneath The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. (pop. 2,315), the government maintained a top-secret bunker during the Cold War to house members of Congress in the event of nuclear attack.
Rates at Historic Hotels of America range from $69 per night at the LaSalle Hotel in Bryan, Texas (pop. 65,660), to $12,500 per night for the 6,000-square-foot penthouse suite at The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
Distinctive character, proud history
Each hotel has a distinctive character, proud history and distinguished guest list. At French Lick Springs Resort in French Lick, Ind. (pop. 1,941), hundreds of famous names appear in the guest register, including Hollywood stars Greta Garbo and Bing Crosby. In hotel photos, Franklin D. Roosevelt poses with Democratic Party officials in 1931, and actress Lana Turner signs her autograph for a young fan in 1945.
The French Lick Springs Hotel and neighboring West Baden Springs Hotel were restored over the last decade to their original gold-leaf splendor in a top-to-bottom $500 million makeover and expansion, which includes a new casino, event center and an 18-hole golf course designed by Pete Dye.
When it opened in 1902, the West Baden Springs Hotel was hailed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" for its six-story domethe world's largest of its kind at the timewhere birds fluttered among the palm trees. Visitors first came to the hotels to partake of the mineral spring water, but enjoyed a variety of activities, including horseback riding, billiards, bowling and fine dining. Legend has it that in 1917 when chef Louis Perrin at the French Lick Springs Hotel ran out of oranges for orange juice, he servedand popularizedanother breakfast beverage: tomato juice.
A favorite claim to fame of The Strater Hotel in Durango, Colo. (pop. 13,922), is Room 222 where author Louis L'Amour vacationed in the 1960s and 1970s. L'Amour always requested the room above the Diamond Belle Saloon because the honky-tonk music inspired him as he wrote about the Old West.
Third-generation owner Rod Barker, 53, grew up in the four-story red brick hotel that has been a family treasure since 1926 and a Durango landmark since it was built in 1887 during the town's gold and silver boom. The hotel's 93 rooms are decorated with walnut Victorian furniture, which is touted as one of the world's largest collections.
"The hotel is such a big part of our community," Barker says. "It was built to be a hub, and we still are in every way."
An American icon
For more than two centuries, The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Mass. (pop. 2,276), has provided food and lodging, and is one of America's oldest hotels.
"There has been an inn on this corner since 1773," says Carol Bosco Baumann, the inn's marketing director. "Revolutionaries gathered here to protest. We're an American icon."
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stayed at the former stagecoach stop, which is immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting Main Street, Stockbridge at Christmas.
The 108 guest rooms are filled with antique furniture collected in the 1800s by longtime owners Charles and Mert Plumb, and Mert's 137 china teapots decorate the lobby and dining room. Owner Nancy Fitzpatrick describes the inn as "living history."
At all of the Historic Hotels of America, their pastsreplete with prominent guests and events in the nation's historyare their best amenities. "The Historic Hotels are for travelers looking for a true sense of place," Roch says.