Historic landmark preserves past while embracing the future with the latest remodeling
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A half-century ago, the now-historic landmark was ever so close to being scrubbed from the scene forever. Then, Victor Callewaert and Harry Ryba changed the island’s future
The Island House is the oldest hotel on Mackinac Island. The Historic Hotels of America member is uniquely the only hotel within the boundaries of Mackinac Island State Park. Its stunning waterfront views, delicious dining options, and excellent service set the standard for an authentic Mackinac experience.
A half-century ago, the now-historic landmark was ever so close to being scrubbed from the scene forever. Then, Victor Callewaert and Harry Ryba changed the island’s future for the better.
“The hotel was dilapidated from sitting vacant for quite some time,” recalled Todd Callewaert, Victor’s son. “My grandfather and father recognized its historical significance to Mackinac Island. Their vision was to continue the tradition of a family-owned property welcoming guests for future generations.”
By 1969, The Island House was already over 100 years old with a celebrated tradition as the “best family hotel” on Mackinac. After its owner passed away in 1938, the Island House was leased by the Moral Rearmament Association (MRA), an international peace organization, based in Switzerland, from the Mackinac Island State Park and served as the organization’s headquarters from 1942 until 1949. After their departure, the resort sat vacant for the better part of two decades.
The property deteriorated so much during that time that the state park chairman proposed tearing down the once grand estate. With demolition looming, Callewaert and Ryba purchased The Island House and leased the land from the state park, then embarked on an incredible restoration project that returned the opulent hotel to its original glory.
The two-year rehabilitation went to extraordinary lengths to preserve in painstaking detail the striking architectural features of the Victorian hotel’s exterior including the many columns, porch spindles, gables, windows and door styles. Shortly after work was completed, the state of Michigan honored Island House Hotel as a historic landmark.
It has been 50 years since Callewaert and Ryba saved The Island House. Preserving the authenticity of the historic estate continues to be of utmost importance today, even as the hotel adds modern conveniences to suit guests of 2019.
This year, in the first major remodeling since a hotel addition in 1995, The Island House debuts a $4 million update that has outfitted 91 guest rooms with a fresh, coastal casual décor featuring new furniture, hardwood flooring, lighting upgrades, USB charging stations, high-speed WiFi, flat-screen cable televisions and air conditioning. Several rooms received new tiling, granite vanities, and bathroom fixtures.
Outside, on the patio overlooking the state park, a second hot tub has been added along with new poolside furniture, so guests have more space to gather. Plus, the bricked courtyard, curated gardens, poolside indoor/outdoor bar, tented patio, and sundeck have been extended in a renovation of the Ice House Bar & BBQ.
“We like to think of Island House Hotel as the quintessential Mackinac Island experience encompassing great location to downtown as well as a respite from the hustle and bustle to enjoy the natural sights and sounds,” Callewaert said.
“We remain committed to enhancing the guest experience by adding contemporary conveniences to Island House Hotel while conscientiously preserving the allure of its historic ambiance.”
The Island House originally was built as a beachfront resort in 1852 before a second owner moved the hotel 300 feet off the shore to its present location to allow for future expansion. The Island House built distinctive-looking East and West wings in 1895 and 1912 and operated as a hotel well into the 20th century as Mackinac emerged as the most popular summer destination in America.
But after then-owner Rose Van Allen Webster died in 1938 – aside from a brief occupation of the MRA until 1949 – The Island House stood vacant for two decades until Callewaert and Ryba rescued the hotel from imminent demolition in 1969.
After the two-year restoration, the hotel underwent extensive renovations in the 1980s, and 1995 added a 5,400-square-foot annex including an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, three family suites, and the Ice House Bar & BBQ. That expansion enabled the hotel to provide new amenities for guests without compromising the original historic Island House structure.
Other improvements through the years include elegantly casual dining in the 1852 Grill Room, on-site bicycle rental and repair, garden seating at the Ice House BBQ and outdoor chimneys for roasting s’mores.
The Island House was built in 1852 and is the oldest hotel on Mackinac Island. After an extensive restoration saved the hotel from demolition in 1969, The Island House was recognized as an historic landmark.
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