Island House Hotel
Since its inception in 1852 as a humble beach house, the Island House Hotel on Mackinac Island has undergone a remarkable transformation, becoming a cherished historic waterfront establishment that continues to welcome countless visitors from across the globe. With its exquisite Victorian architecture and warm, family-operated intimacy, this time-honored estate is the most historic hotel on the island, ensuring an immersive and genuine experience for all guests seeking an unforgettable stay on Mackinac Island.
In 1865, Captain Henry Van Allen, a respected Great Lakes skipper, acquired the resort, laying the foundation for a cherished family legacy that endured for nearly 75 years. Under his stewardship, Captain Van Allen undertook a significant feat by relocating the hotel approximately 300 feet further from the shoreline to its current position, driven by a visionary desire for future growth and expansion. This strategic decision paved the way for the Island House to establish itself as the premier family hotel, coinciding with Mackinac Island’s rise in popularity as a sought-after summer destination in America.
The historical significance of Mackinac Island continued to evolve during this time. In 1875, Mackinac Island was designated the second National Park in the United States, recognizing its unique natural beauty and cultural heritage. This esteemed status further elevated the island’s reputation and drew attention to its captivating attractions.
The year 1887 witnessed another notable development as the Grand Hotel was constructed, adding to the island’s hospitality landscape.
In 1895, Mackinac Island was transferred from the federal government to the state of Michigan, solidifying its status as a state park. This transfer ensured the preservation and protection of the island’s natural resources, allowing future generations to appreciate its pristine beauty and historic treasures.
After Captain Van Allen’s passing, his daughter, Mrs. Rose Van Allen Webster, gracefully assumed the mantle of proprietorship for the Island House Hotel in 1892. Together with her husband, whom she had met during his service at Fort Mackinac, the Websters embarked on an ambitious journey of expansion and refinement. They undertook significant enhancements to the hotel, including the addition of the remarkable East and West wings in 1895 and 1912, which bestowed upon the Island House its distinctive and captivating architectural character.
Over the next 25 years, the Island House thrived under Mrs. Webster’s astute guidance, attracting discerning guests from prominent cities such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York. These esteemed visitors indulged in delightful afternoon high teas and reveled in the splendor of grand ballroom dancing accompanied by full orchestras. The hotel became synonymous with luxury and refinement, leaving an indelible mark on Mackinac Island’s hospitality scene.
Mrs. Webster retained ownership of the Island House until her passing in 1938. Unfortunately, the weight of maintenance and taxes proved to be a heavy burden for her heirs, leading to a period of dormancy for the property. In 1942, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission leased it to the Moral Rearmament Association (MRA), an international peace organization headquartered in Switzerland. The MRA found solace and inspiration within the walls of the Island House, utilizing it as their headquarters until 1949, when they relocated to Mission Point.
It is worth noting that in 1901, Mackinac Island took a monumental step by implementing a ban on motor vehicles, preserving its enchanting atmosphere and allowing visitors to embrace the timeless charm of horse-drawn carriages and bicycles as the primary means of transportation.
These pivotal moments in the Island House’s history, from the Webster family’s era of expansion to the hotel’s lease to the MRA and the ban on motor vehicles, all contribute to the rich tapestry of Mackinac Island’s heritage and the enduring allure of the Island House Hotel.
Preserving a Michigan Landmark
During its long period of abandonment, the Island House languished, deteriorating to such an extent that the Chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park considered demolishing it altogether. However, Harry and Victor, recognizing the hotel’s historical significance, stepped in to rescue it from imminent destruction. Determined to preserve its legacy, they took a bold step and acquired the rights to the hotel from the owners, paying a substantial sum of $60,000. Additionally, they secured a lease agreement with the park commission to assume responsibility for the building.
In July 1969, as Victor Callewaert vividly recalls, they were handed the keys to the building, and what awaited them inside was truly astonishing. He recounts finding a box of keys devoid of any names or door numbers. With curiosity as their guide, they explored the hotel, leaving keys in the locks of doors that they managed to unlock. They soon discovered the puzzling layout, with one door leading to six rooms, if they could even be called that. When they took charge of the building, it boasted over 200 small guest rooms, each with its own unique characteristics.
Throughout the remarkable restoration process, utmost care was taken to safeguard the captivating architectural elements that define the hotel’s exterior. Every intricate detail, from the majestic columns and ornate porch spindles to the elegant gables, windows, and door styles, was painstakingly preserved. This ambitious undertaking spanned two years, during which the Island House remained closed to the general public. The door re-opened the main building and west wing with great fanfare on June 23, 1972. In 1973, the east wing was completed and the hotel opens for the season with 98 guest rooms with private baths and a 300-seat restaurant named Guvnor’s Dining Room.
The restoration project achieved another significant milestone on August 11, 1973, when the State of Michigan bestowed the esteemed title of Michigan Historic Landmark upon the Island House. This recognition affirmed the hotel’s enduring historical and cultural value. Moreover, in 2004, the cherished estate received another remarkable accolade as it was honored with inclusion in the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, further cementing its status as a cherished piece of American history.
During the extensive renovations carried out in the 1980s, a range of modern conveniences was introduced to enhance the guest experience at the Island House. In 1985, the elevator was added for access to the 2nd and 3rd floors. In 1989, televisions and telephones were added to the guest rooms.
The next significant transformation took place in 1994. To prepare for a momentous expansion, a meticulous archaeological excavation was conducted to ensure the preservation of any burial grounds or fossils on the property. With a clear path forward, the hotel embarked on its first addition since 1912, encompassing an impressive 5,400 square feet.
This remarkable expansion introduced an array of exciting features, including an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, and three luxurious suites. Additionally, a delightful establishment known as the Ice House found its home within the new addition. Paying homage to Mackinac Island’s oldest ice house, located on the northwest corner of the property, the Ice House BBQ is a relaxing outdoor place to eat on Mackinac Island away from the hustle of downtown.
To further enhance connectivity and meet the demands of the digital age, WIFI was introduced to the Island House in 2014, ensuring that guests could stay connected while enjoying the timeless charm of this historic establishment.
1852 Grill Room
In this same year, the 1852 Grill Room was reconfigured, remodeled, and a lift was added to the veranda, making the main areas of the hotel barrier-free.
In 2013, the 1852 Grill Room once again was transformed by the addition of floor-to-ceiling windows giving way to a gorgeous bay view, along with updated seating in the dining room, lounge, and outdoor patio.
The year 2019 held a momentous significance as it marked the 50th anniversary of the Ryba-Callewaert family’s heroic efforts in rescuing the Island House Hotel from the brink of demolition by leasing the historical estate from the Mackinac State Historic Parks. To commemorate this milestone, a grand celebration took place, and a remarkable $4 million multi-year renovation project was undertaken.
The extensive renovation encompassed various aspects of the hotel, elevating the guest experience to new heights. Guest room amenities and decor received thoughtful updates, breathing new life into the accommodations while maintaining the hotel’s timeless charm. The beloved Ice House BBQ was expanded, allowing guests to savor an even greater array of culinary delights within its inviting confines. Additionally, an outdoor hot tub was introduced on the deck of the annex, providing a relaxing oasis where guests could unwind and soak up the island’s enchanting ambiance.
Recognizing the need for modern connectivity, high-speed WIFI was made available throughout the entire property, ensuring that guests could stay connected and enjoy the conveniences of the digital age while relishing in the Island House’s rich history and natural splendor. This comprehensive renovation showcased the ongoing commitment of the Ryba-Callewaert family to preserve and enhance the Island House Hotel, ensuring that it remains a cherished destination for generations to come.
The Island House Hotel continues to be recognized and celebrated for its outstanding qualities and commitment to preserving history.
In 2020, Island House was named in the Top Ten Midwest Hotels by Condé Nast Traveler. As well as being honored with the prestigious Award for Excellence from Historic Hotels of America, recognizing the Callewaert family as the Legendary Family of the Year. This esteemed honor highlights their unwavering dedication to preserving the rich heritage of the Island House Hotel.
Furthermore, in 2022, Mackinac Island was named the #1 Travel Destination by Travel + Leisure, further solidifying its reputation as an unparalleled getaway. Additionally, the island was recognized as the #1 Vacation Destination by USA Today in 2023, emphasizing its allure and appeal to travelers seeking natural beauty, historical charm, and a blissful escape from the ordinary.
In 2023, the Island House Hotel’s stunning gardens were honored with the prestigious distinction of being named one of the Top 25 Most Magnificent Gardens by Historic Hotels of America. This recognition highlights the hotel’s dedication to maintaining exquisite outdoor spaces that enchant and delight visitors.
These accolades not only showcase the Island House Hotel’s commitment to excellence but also underscore Mackinac Island’s standing as a premier destination that captivates the hearts and imaginations of visitors.
The Island House Hotel, rooted in the legacy of the Ryba-Callewaert family, holds a significant place in the cultural fabric of Mackinac Island. Notably, multiple generations from the Ryba-Callewaert family actively contribute to the hotel’s operations, ensuring its enduring success and preservation. This multi-generational commitment exemplifies the family’s deep connection to the Island House Hotel and unwavering dedication to its legacy.
The Ryba-Callewaert family legacy extends beyond the hotel, intertwining with the sweet traditions of Mackinac Island itself at Ryba’s Mackinac Island Fudge Shops. This beloved confectionery has captivated visitors with its irresistible fudge creations for generations.