Restored from the ground up: 35 years ago, a vital piece of Manchester's history and economy was brought back to life
MANCHESTER — Decades after the Equinox House saw visits from Mary Todd Lincoln, her two sons and American presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, the luxury hotel succumbed to foreclosure and sat vacant for 12 years.
During the 1970s and '80s, the hotel in Manchester Village sat forlorn and empty, a shadow of its former glory with paint peeling from its columns and holes in its roof.
But The Equinox rose from the ashes — quite literally, surviving a fire that nearly destroyed it mid-restoration — to once again welcome guests seeking a getaway in the mountains. It is now known as The Equinox Golf Resort and Spa and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What would Manchester Village look like if the stately hotel at its heart had continued crumbling? Would it have been replaced by something else? And what if the entire hotel had burned to the ground that winter's day in 1985?
With that in mind, the near-death and rebirth of the Equinox deserves a closer look, 35 years after it reopened.
A brief history
According to the resort's website, The Equinox traces its lineage back to the 18th century and the Marsh Tavern, where Ira Allen, brother of Ethan Allen, suggested confiscating property from British loyalists and using it to equip a regiment of the Green Mountain Boys. The tavern's ownership changed three times — its founder, William Marsh, was among the unlucky loyalists to lose property — until Levi Church Orvis built a homestead adjacent to the tavern around 1832.
After Orvis's death in 1849, his son Franklin Orvis — the brother of Charles Fredrick Orvis, founder of what's now known as The Orvis Company — purchased the old family homestead. After the acquisition, Franklin Orvis rented rooms to summer guests.
What made it a luxury destination? According to an 1897 article in the Rutland Daily Reporter, after two unsuccessful years in business, Orvis decided to "double my prices and give more to the guests."
New York and Boston residents, escaping the city summer heat and humidity, began reserving more rooms. To keep up with demand, Orvis added a third floor to his father's stately home, and in 1854, opened the hotel as the Equinox House. By 1863, the first year Mrs. Lincoln visited with her sons, the Equinox House was well established as a primary summer resort for the wealthy, known for the beauty of the surrounding mountains, the clean air and ample recreational opportunities. Years later, Robert Todd Lincoln returned to Manchester and built a family home, Hildene, not far from the Equinox.
In 1883, Fredrick Orvis bought the Taconic Hotel, which sat just south of the Equinox House, and joined the two buildings with a second-floor walkway. He advertised amenities like "lawn tennis, archery, croquet ground, billiard tables, bowling alleys, and music afternoon and evening," according to a company brochure. The Equinox House continued to flourish for the next 40 years.
Financial trouble started in 1927, when the Equinox Company, then owner of the hotel with Franklin Orvis's wife, Louise, as the leading stockholder, completed a golf course adjacent to the Ekwanok Country Club. This addition, designed by Walter Travis, was made in order to accommodate the many golfers who came to Manchester Village, which by then billed itself as the "Center of Summer Golf."
The owners indulged in more heavy spending when they developed an airport and a skeet field north of Equinox Pond. These expenses, coupled with the stock market crash of 1929, led to the Equinox Company filing for bankruptcy in 1938 and the end of the Orvis family's involvement in the hotel.
The residents of Manchester, understanding the economic importance of the hotel to their community, joined together to protect their historical landmark by taking over the property.
For the next 35 years, the property was leased and owned by several entities that added and subtracted buildings in response to changing times. Hotel amenities were enhanced in order to maintain the establishment's tradition of fine hospitality.
"It was great living there," said Richard Farley, who was a child when his father, Thomas Farley, was manager of the Equinox House from 1963 to 1972. "It was like growing up like a millionaire, even though we weren't," Farley said, referring to the swimming pool, the trout fishing at the pond and the opulence to which he and his siblings had access as children.
But it wasn't all play for Farley. "I'd take down the flag with the bellman. Go in, polish my shoes and put on a suit," Farley said of his preparations for nightly formal dinners. "I'd hold the chairs for the ladies, place doilies on the plates and put covers on the plates as they came off the line."
The second financial struggle occurred shortly after the Equinox House was purchased by Ian Bennett in 1972. An engineer deemed the Orvis Inn, a self-contained unit on the north side of the property, to be structurally unsound, leading to its closure.
At the same time, travelers' expectations were changing and most guests were no longer willing to share bathrooms. This shift in vacationers' desires and the closure of the Orvis Inn cut in half the number of rooms that could be rented.
In the summer of 1973, Chemical Bank of New York foreclosed on the struggling property. The hotel shut down, and its china, glassware and furnishings — all except the Victorian pieces — were sold at auction.
The derelict years
Unlike in 1938, the people of Manchester didn't have the capacity to take over the property in the early '70s. Thus, the "jewel of the village" fell into a deeper state of disrepair. Eventually, the boutique shops and ice cream parlor across the street from the Equinox House closed. With the hotel boarded up, the village's once stately second homes also suffered from neglect.
"Wealthy second homeowners stopped putting money into their homes," Select Board chairman Ivan Beattie recalled.
"The closing depressed the whole town," said Melissa Levis, innkeeper at the family-run Wilburton Inn in Manchester. "It was this haunted, creepy mar to our town."
In 1974, Francesco Galesi, chairman of the Galesi Group of Albany, N.Y., assumed the mortgage from Chemical Bank. Galesi was said to have fallen in love with the crumbling building when he bought it. But due to a declining economy and development regulations, it sat vacant for another 10 years. The property continued to suffer water and frost damage, which created visible holes in the first floor ceiling up through the roof.
"I went in to walk around a few times," Richard Farley said. "It was like stepping into a bad dream. I was used to it always being so neat and clean."
Louise Hughes, who was working with the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce at the time, was given a special tour of the defunct hotel. "Columns were rotted off at the bottom," Hughes said. "The roof was rotted in the kitchen. There was thick moss growing on the drainboard."
A seed is planted
In 1984, the Galesi Group was awarded a $3.4 million Urban Development Action Grant. This loan planted the seed for a $20 million restoration project that would take 18 months to complete.
As demolition crews got to work, they noticed that over many years of additions, the construction quality varied from sturdy to flimsy. The south side of the hotel, with rounded columns and post-and-beam design, held up well. The flat-roofed northern side and the westerly additions were in poor condition.
Burd Building Co., contractors of the restoration project, placed an emphasis on leaving original structures in place wherever possible. According to Dana Broadway, project manager for the Equinox Development Corp, this was accomplished by reinforcing existing beams and sagging floors and by doubling up on old supports.
Working with Vermont Historic Preservation officer Eric Gilbertson, the demolition crew saved and restored items of historical significance such as fireplaces, banisters, intricate trim and moldings, doors and doorknobs, porcelain sinks and clawfoot bathtubs.
Then, in a moment, it almost all went up in smoke.
Crews had made tremendous progress on the restoration when, on Jan. 18, 1985, a mere six months from the hotel's scheduled reopening, a propane truck caused a fire that ripped through the south wing of the hotel. According to Richard Farley, skiers at the top of Bromley Mountain could see thick, black smoke pouring from the roof and fourth floor windows.
As the inferno raged, local residents once again rallied around the historic landmark. The First Congregational Church, across the street from the hotel, opened its kitchen. Volunteers, with donated food from local businesses, prepared soup, sandwiches and drinks to feed the firefighters.
Among those fighting the blaze were Glen and Wayne Schmaller of Sunderland. According to an article in the Bennington Banner, they prevented the fire from spreading by driving their excavator through the south and north connector of the hotel.
By the time the fire was extinguished, roughly a third of the south wing was destroyed. Witnessing the damage, residents worried that would be the end of The Equinox.
With determination and manpower, The Equinox Hotel rose like a phoenix from the ashes. It reopened on schedule on July 6, 1985 as a year-round resort. The Bennington Banner reported that nearly 4,000 visitors toured the hotel that day, more than double the number Equinox management had anticipated. The New York Times reported on the reopening as well.
"The spirit and energy came back to the village after the reopening," said Beattie, the Select Board chairman. "Second homeowners started putting a coat of paint on their houses."
Today, aside from a steady stream of guests and a small army of employees, The Equinox is one of Manchester's most valuable properties. According to Manchester town officials, it's worth $19.2 million on the grand list — $32.3 million if you include the golf course.
"The reopening has been a part of the revitalization of Manchester," said Levis, the innkeeper at the Wilburton Inn.
According to Richard Hom, chef concierge at The Equinox Golf Resort and Spa, there have been two renovations since the hotel reopened in 1985: one in 2007 and the other in 2017. Both were mostly cosmetic and didn't involve major structural changes.
Today, the hotel, which anchors the village in tradition and elegance, is still evolving as it entertains visitors who come to play its golf course, hike Mount Equinox or attend a destination wedding. At present, it features 199 guest rooms.
Yet, it continues to honor the 150-year history that is engrained in the walls, burned in the grand fireplace and soaked in the circular staircase that leads up to rooms which once hosted American presidents.
Anne Archer contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Manchester.
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