SARANAC LAKE - Roedel Companies is working on a plan to restore the Hotel Saranac's iconic rooftop sign.
In a nod to a bit of local nostalgia - or local myth, depending on whom you talk to - the hotel's new owners also plan to install a button that would allow them to dim the letters EL in HOTEL and NAC in SARANAC periodically, so the sign reads "HOT SARA."
"If it's something we can coordinate, which we can certainly do in this day of computers and technology, to have a 'HOT SARA' button, we're going to look at that," said Fred Roedel. "I think it's one of those quirky things that makes this project endearing to an awful lot of people."
The Hotel Saranac’s rooftop sign, seen here recently, is a well-known local landmark, but it’s showing its age.
(Photo — Kim Alvarez, Landmark Consulting)
The Hotel Saranac sign’s letters, like the “A” seen here, were orignally illuminated with neon tubes, later replaced by spotlights. Roedel Companies plans to light the sign with LED bulbs.
(Photo — Kim Alvarez, Landmark Consulting)
The sign, which has sat atop the hotel for decades, is made up of metal block letters attached to a wooden backboard that's secured to a steel frame.
"Originally the faces of these letters would have been lit up with neon tubing, but this tubing has long since been removed and replaced with large spot lights," said Kim Alvarez of Landmark Consulting, the historic preservation consulting firm hired by Roedel Companies. "The 60-plus year old letters have rusted from long-term exposure to the elements, and birds have made homes inside them."
"It needs a lot of work," Roedel said. "What we've got to do is get some modern light to it. We've reviewed a number of options. It will be LED lighting. Our plan is to restore it so each individual letter is lit. We think we can fix some of the letters, but about half of them have to be rebuilt."
Why preserve the sign? Roedel said it's part of the "fabric" of the community.
"I don't think there's a person in the world who has come into Saranac Lake and come around the corner (of Lake Flower Avenue) and not seen that sign," he said. "I think it's very important to everybody to know that that sign, and the hotel, is alive and well. It's a real indicator of the community."
Roedel said the hotel's smokestack will also be restored. He said it's structurally sound except for the top 10 feet, which need some work.
"We plan to keep that smokestack," he said. "It won't be used again, but it's a feature of the property and the community."
The chimney is also now home to a community of chimney swifts that can be seen swooping and diving into it around dusk.
Roedel said the idea of having a "HOT SARA" switch is based on feedback from the public.
"It's been very interesting how many people call the hotel the Hot Sara," he said. "We've heard that loud and clear."
As the story goes, the old neon tube lights that illuminated the sign would occasionally burn out, leaving some of the letters in the dark. The combination of remaining lit-up letters that people seem to remember the most is "HOT SARA."
Several longtime village residents, like Natalie Leduc and Ron Keough, told the Enterprise they remember seeing the sign lit up as "HOT SARA," although they were a little foggy about when or how often it happened.
"I just remember it was a maintenance issue for them to get up to fix it, and that was always a bit of a challenge," said Keough, who has lived most of his life on Academy Street, a block from the hotel.
Local resident Chris Brescia recalled seeing "HOT SARA" lit up sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
"The right and left hand sides of the sign must have been two different circuits, and something must have happened to one of them," he said. "I don't think it was like that for too long, but I do remember seeing it."
Over time, many people in the community have come to call the hotel the Hot Sara, presumably based on this story.
But don't tell that to Howard Riley. The former village mayor, manager, Enterprise editor and current local history columnist said he doesn't ever recall seeing just the letters "HOT SARA" lit up on the sign.
"That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but that would be a little too much of a coincidence," he said.
Riley said he believes there's another reason why people call the hotel the Hot Sara.
"If you park in certain places, with that huge smokestack in the back, when the sign is lit up, the smokestack blocks out the rest, and it says 'HOT SARA,'" Riley said. "From different directions, that's what you'd see. I think that's where 'HOT SARA' comes from."
Bob Seidenstein, who like Riley also has lived in the village most of his life, also said he's never seen "HOT SARA" on the hotel's sign. He called the story a "great rural legend."
Seidenstein said he couldn't pinpoint the origin of the term "Hot Sara," but he doesn't think it joined the local vocabulary until after the hotel was bought by Paul Smith's College in 1962.
"I don't think I heard it in high school (in the early 1960s)" he said. "I think it was a Paul Smith's thing. They referred to it as such, but I never heard it referred to by townies as that, at least early on."
"Not everybody remembers the 'HOT SARA,'" Roedel admitted. "Not everybody really knows when it happened. But it would be a shame if we didn't take that into account, and at least have that opportunity (to make the sign say "HOT SARA"), particularly for Paul Smith's (alumni). We haven't made a final decision, but we're going to look at it."
"I think it's wonderful," Leduc said. "When (Roedel) told me that, I'm like, 'Go for it.' Every Paul Smith's alum will be thrilled."
The rooftop sign wasn't on the building when it was constructed in 1927. When it was added, and by whom, is another puzzle.
Alvarez reviewed old newspaper accounts and aerial photos of the village that led her to believe it was built sometime in the 1940s. She provided the Enterprise with historical photos, including one taken around 1934 that shows no sign on the hotel's roof and others taken in the 1940s in which the sign is visible.
An article in the Enterprise archives dated May 5, 1948, goes into detail about how the hotel was being "reconditioned, redecorated and reserviced throughout." That led Alvarez to believe the sign may have been erected around that time, but Keough and Riley believe it was sooner, possibly in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
"We moved into this building in February 1944, and I can't remember the sign not being there," Keough said.
Riley recalled seeing the sign while delivering newspapers in the village as a young boy in 1942. He also found an old photo that shows a 1936 Ford parked in front of the hotel, with no sign visible on the roof.
"It probably was the late '30s is my wild guess," Riley said.