Think Northern Michigan cottage — and then, the quintessential cottage-style inn — and you immediately picture wide, spacious porches outfitted with decorative pillars and breezy swings. That’s partly due to the work of builder Charles Caskey, who built some of the first cottages in the charming Bay View Association near Petoskey, and on Mackinac Island’s bluffs. He scandalously traded fancy parlors for casual porches, and then moved on to build some of the state’s most famous inns of the day.
The best known of his works is the circa-1887 Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, a project people of the day called “Caskey’s folly” because of its unprecedented amenities (like an elevator) and the fact it was a little bit crooked. More of a hidden secret is his 1903 project that inn staff and promoters like to call the “Grand’s cool little sister,” Onekama’s Portage Point Resort.
Like the Grand Hotel, Portage Point was founded by a transportation company, said owner Bob Gezon. The company’s steamships transported guests from Chicago, often to spend whole summers on this spit of land wedged between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan. While initially just a 30-room Colonial-style lakefront inn, it quickly expanded to its current Greek Revival style with Corinthian columns. Over the years, Victorian cottages and adjacent buildings were added, all now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The inn has changed hands a few times over many years, but Gezon hopes to restore it to its former grandeur — both in architecture and activity. He was something of an accidental owner, an environmental dredging contractor who stood to lose what was owed him when a former owner filed for bankruptcy. Instead, he opted to buy the mortgage and expand his holdings of Michigan coastal properties.
The inn’s staff is waiting for the go-ahead on some infrastructure projects including a municipal sewer system and moving ahead with a planned expansion and renovations. Those have been completed on adjacent buildings, including 40 condominium-style rooms that were added to the 40 available for rent. A second swimming pool also will be added to the waterfront, and the main entrance, now facing the lake, will be moved to the back of the hotel. Guests will then be greeted by a three-story entryway that exposes a grand staircase that was a signature of Caskey and George Mason, a Grand Hotel architect who collaborated on the inn’s construction, Gezon said.
Builders will lift the main hotel to create a new ground level with fitness center and spa and walkout to the lake. Activities like water skiing and boat rentals will similarly make the lake a focus, and Gezon envisions further expanding offerings like live music, cookouts, dance lessons and lawn games — all further reflecting the feel as well as look of the inn’s heyday.
“We want to keep it feeling a bit like the inn in Dirty Dancing,” Gezon said “We seem to be getting through the unpleasant side of permitting. Then we can really have some fun with it!” ≈
— Kim Schneider
* Photography Courtesy Portage Point Resort