Vacant hotel in Michigan

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan
Date added: March 02, 2023 Categories:
West Elevation from S.W. corner of site (1990)

The original Hotel Montague, which this present structure replaced after a fire in 1923, was one of many commercial, industrial, and civic improvements which early Caro businessman and promoter Charles Montague carried out in Caro between his arrival in town in 1868 and his financial decline after 1903. The present 1923-24 building of the same name stands on the highly visible site of its predecessor and utilizes its cut fieldstone lower portion, thus retaining something of a direct association with its namesake, Charles Montague. Reconstruction of the building after the 1923 fire, because of the perception that a good hotel materially encouraged local growth and development while poor or no hotel facilities discouraged them, became a community project, financed by the sale of stock and bonds to local citizens. The present building served as the city's principal hotel and a leading meeting place for over fifty years. The Hotel Montague, despite its interior renovation and fire and water damage, remains a prime example of an early twentieth-century, small-town, Michigan hotel because of its size, visual prominence, and unusual form and design.

The completion of the original Hotel Montague in 1902 as a first-class hostelry and dining establishment was the crown jewel of Charles Montague's long career. He had spent all of his adult life in varied industries and banking, general mercantile, transportation, and communication businesses in the Caro, Michigan community.

Charles Montague significantly impacted the development of the Village of Caro and Tuscola County, Michigan. Charles Montague was born near London, Ontario in 1847 and moved to Caro, Michigan in 1868, clerking temporarily in his uncle's store. He joined the Union Army, returning to Caro in 1865, thereupon joining business with his uncle, J. C. Montague & Company. In 1867, his uncle sold out and Charles bought out D. C. Bush, and, joined by William E. Sherman, continued in the mercantile business for the next several years. In 1869, as a partner in Montague and Sherman, Charles built the first three-story brick building block, called the Sherman Block, in Caro (later the Wilsey Block). In 1878, he built the Opera House Block; in 1879 the Bank Block, in 1880 the Citizens Block, and in 1881 a block of six stores at Frank and State Streets.

At the same period of building and development of downtown Caro, Charles spearheaded a drive to secure a railroad connection to Caro. Besides donating the depot site, he and a fellow businessman each gave $5,000 and personally guaranteed $80,000 of subscriptions from the people of Caro. Charles also assisted in obtaining rights of way and contracted for the construction. The railroad went into service in July of 1878.

Montague opened the first bank of Caro, the Caro Exchange Bank, in 1875 and continued the banking and real estate operations throughout the 1880's. He acquired substantial wealth during this period in lumber operations in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and in Green Bay, Wisconsin, under the partnership of Van Winkle & Montague, from 1882 to 1906.

Another significant contribution of Charles Montague came in 1899, one which continues today. Sugar beet culture was introduced to the Caro area in 1898 by Richard Hoodless. In order to process the beets, a factory had to be built, requiring $400,000. This was beyond the means of Montague, so he and John Seeley went to Detroit to arrange for additional financing. With the additional capital secured, they returned to Caro and were greeted with much joy, a parade, and band playing "Hail to the Chief." Land was purchased, the still standing factory was built, and the first processing of beets began in October of 1899. Charles Montague was one of the original seven directors of the Peninsular Sugar Refining Company. Today, the sugar beet industry still thrives in the Caro area.

Shortly after the sugar factory success, Charles envisioned the need for a first class hotel for Caro; thus, Hotel Montague became a reality. Its location was the site of the Wilsey Block. Montague's earliest business block was demolished in 1900 to make way for the new hotel, which opened in 1902. The spacious lobby, friendly dining room, and well appointed rooms were reportedly one of the very finest gathering spots in Eastern Michigan. Charles Montague had triumphed again.

Unfortunately, Lady Luck was not always with Charles. Another vision of Montague was to harness the Cass River for electrical power for the rapidly developing Caro community. Planned in 1900-1901, the dam and turbines were constructed in 1902. Unfortunately, immediately after the gates were closed, problems surfaced with a break in the foundation. The dam was destroyed, the builders blamed, and these issues contributed to Charles Montague's financial woes during the economic panic of 1903. Fortunately, he was able to settle with his creditors and saved a considerable amount of his property.

In the years following, he had plans to build a magnificent Masonic Temple and Opera House adjacent to the hotel. Work had begun when he was overtaken by illness and his family convinced him to abandon the project. Charles Montague died on January 10th, 1921.

This original Hotel Montague burned on November 21st, 1923. The Caro Board of Commerce spearheaded a drive for a replacement structure that began practically before the fire's ashes had cooled. The board invited Olin C. Eckley, secretary of the Ypsilanti (Michigan) Board of Commerce, to speak to its December 4th, 1923 meeting concerning the means adopted by that city to finance a new hotel, the Huron Hotel, that had been opened on January 1st, 1923. Mr. Eckley explained that the needed funds had been raised through the sale of stock within the community and that a manager appointed by a board of trustees was operating the business as a profit. At a meeting on December 26th, 1923, the executive board of the board of commerce reviewed plans for the new hotel submitted by architects Cowles and Mutscheller of Saginaw and estimates of the construction cost. The Tuscola County Advertiser reported that "The plans show a front elevation very much like the old building but the interior will be more compact and provide 53 rooms instead of only 33." (It is not clear that these were the plans ultimately used.) The board adopted a financing plan by which investors would receive the value of their investment half in stock and half in bonds paying six percent interest. An investment in a first-class hotel was viewed as an investment in the community that would be amply repaid by the business development and increased property values that would result. By late March, 1924, the estimated $60,000 cost of the new building was pledged. The names of all subscribers were listed in the March 24th Advertiser.

On April 10th, 1924, an architect's drawing of the "new" Hotel Montague appeared in the local newspaper. Touted as being fireproof and modern in every respect, the hotel was to have hot and cold water in each of the 50 sleeping rooms, while 10 rooms were to have baths. On May 12th, 1924, construction began on the Hotel Montague and by June 6th, 1924, construction was well underway. Miller-Uhlman of Bay City, General Contractors, had been awarded the contract for $34,000 with stipulations that construction be completed by September 1st, 1924. Heating and plumbing was to be completed for $10,200 by Wood and Gee of Caro. Trombly Electric Company, of Saginaw, was to provide the electric for $996.55. It is not clear, but it appears the remainder of the $60,000 subscribed was used to furnish the sleeping rooms, parlor, and public areas as originally planned in December 1923. The completed building was opened with a party on December 3rd, 1924.

The Hotel Montague is one of a number of hotels built in the downtowns of large and not-so-large Michigan cities in the early twentieth century by community corporations to provide quality hotel accommodations where they were lacking. Other examples from the 1910's and 20's include the Huron Hotel in Ypsilanti, Olds Hotel in Lansing, Park Place Hotel in Traverse City, Hotel Warm Friend in Holland, Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie, Four Flags Hotel in Niles, and Wolverine Hotel in Boyne City. The Montague, for a community of the relatively small size of Caro, is a substantial building, the equal of other small-city hotels of the era such as the Wolverine in Boyne City and the Doherty in Clare. Its architects, the Saginaw, Michigan firm of Clarence L. Cowles and George Mutscheller, are known to have designed the Doherty Hotel in Clare and the Central Junior High School in Saginaw, both built in the 1920's.

The hotel continued to operate as a hotel. In 1938 all stocks and bonds were paid off and as late as 1963, some $20,000 remained unredeemed. It survived the Great Depression, a World War, and changing economic times. It had provided shelter for many important people, was a local gathering place, and few politicians missed the opportunity to use the great stone porch as an oratory.

By 1966, much of the lodging trade had moved to newer "motels" on the community outskirts and the automobile and new highways made travel distances and duration considerably less. The hotel changed owners in 1962 and again in 1978. In 1984, a fire brought the end of hotel operations. The structure has been vacant since then.

Building Description

Hotel Montague is a 3-1/2 story brick and cut fieldstone building sited on a small triangular lot at a major intersection in the small community of Caro, MI. The single building actually fronts on three streets; State, Almer, and Frank Streets. Accordingly, the building exhibits two entirely different facades, one of utilitarian nature at the rear and one of utilitarian Neo-Classical Revival inspiration at street side. The present 1924 hotel occupies the same Lazy L foundation plan of the original 1902 hotel. A pedimented, double-decker, brick-pier portico stands at the apex of the L.- The roof is flat, hidden behind a parapet. A projecting metal classical cornice surrounds three sides of the structure at the roof line. Except for two small 1950s additions, the integrity of the building exterior remains intact. The hotel has been vacant since 1984 when a fire destroyed a portion of the second and third floor interior.

The hotel is flanked by small one and two story frame residences at both sides of the triangular lot. Adjacent uses across the street include the one story IGA Foods, 1-1/2 story Strand Theater, and 2 story mixed commercial structures along State Street. With the exception of the IGA, little has changed in this area in the past 50 years.

The exterior of the structure is in good physical condition. The cut fieldstone walls at the lower 1-1/2 story portion with keyed window and door heads are remnants of the original 1902 construction. A brown face brick in running bond now covers the upper two story facades at street side. At the rear, a mortared rubble fieldstone wall is visible for the first 1/2 story above grade, followed by a cement stucco covered brick to the second story floor line. A light buff colored brick covers the second and third story rear exterior.

A small lean-to metal skinned addition has been constructed at the apex of the interior angle at the rear. Adjacent to State Street a small "doghouse" addition covers a lower level entrance areaway. Both additions are insignificant and appear to have been placed after 1950.

Except for spatial relationships, little remains of the 1924 interior integrity. Two simple brick fireplaces remain - one in the first floor lobby and the other on the second floor. Public areas such as stairways, lobby, and meeting rooms have either been scavenged or destroyed during the last remodeling. On the second and third floors, most sleeping room doors with transoms remain in place except where destroyed by fire. The interior window and base trim is a simple 1X4 pine with outside corner molding. In some rooms, the molding has been removed to place paneling over the plaster walls. Approximately 50% of the trim appears to remain in place.

A 1984 fire destroyed much of the south wing, second and third floors. Subsequently, moisture and rains have caused the first floor lounge area and floors above to deteriorate and settle at the interior frame corridor bearing wall.

No elevator exists. The heating system is a gas fired boiler and steam radiators. Asbestos is present as pipe wrapping. The basement floor is approximately 1/2 wood and 1/2 concrete slab. Basement ceilings are in fair condition with some structural repair needed.

The former hotel is to be rehabilitated, utilizing as much as possible of its historic finish, to serve as housing for the elderly.

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan East and Northeast Elevation from State Street. (1990)
East and Northeast Elevation from State Street. (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan North Elevation (1990)
North Elevation (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan West Elevation from Frank Street. (1990)
West Elevation from Frank Street. (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan West Elevation from S.W. corner of site (1990)
West Elevation from S.W. corner of site (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan South Elevation (1990)
South Elevation (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan Sleeping room door (1990)
Sleeping room door (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan Sleeping room window (1990)
Sleeping room window (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan First floor lounge/dining interior from former lobby (1990)
First floor lounge/dining interior from former lobby (1990)

Hotel Montague, Caro Michigan Second floor fireplace and French doors to veranda (1990)
Second floor fireplace and French doors to veranda (1990)