BERLIN – Boarded up windows. Vacant storefronts. Empty sidewalks.
Berlin in the 1970s could have been any struggling small town in America. Business was slow. Many buildings were run-down. And at the center of it all was the Atlantic Hotel. The 19th Century landmark appeared, like the rest of the town, to be headed for obscurity.
In the ensuing decade, the foresight of 10 local families changed all that. The group of like-minded citizens decided to pool their resources and purchase the aging hotel. The revitalization that came next triggered a complete renaissance in Berlin.
“There is no doubt, whatsoever, in my mind that the renewal and pride that is now central to the Town of Berlin’s identity today is a direct result of the restoration of the Atlantic Hotel,” Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said. “The inspiration provided by those visionary investors in the 1980s was the catalyst for so many other property owners to join in an ongoing effort of renewal that we continue to enjoy throughout our community.”
Today, the stalwart hotel at the center of Berlin celebrates its 120th anniversary. The historic inn looks much as it did in 1895.
“If you want to stay in a room that feels like a museum, we have it,” said John Fager, who, with his wife, Michelle, took over the hotel in 2009.
Although the establishment was renovated and restored in the 1980s, management through the years varied and the hotel was closed abruptly in January 2009. Fager, known for his popular Ocean City restaurant, said he hated seeing the local landmark empty every day as he took his sons to Worcester Preparatory School.
“I couldn’t take it,” he said. “It was too depressing.”
In an effort to get the place up and running again, just a month after the hotel closed, Fager offered to take it over. He said he would reopen it while the owners looked for new management. When the old paintings were back on the walls and the antique furniture was again in its place, however, Fager found himself still in charge of the hotel and engaged with it.
“It just evolved differently [than planned],” he said. “But we love the hotel.”
While the small hotel — it has just 17 rooms — is primarily dependent on seasonal and weekend business, Fager says it does well. Its restaurant, the Drummer’s Café, has proved popular with hotel guests as well as area residents.
“Everybody’s pleased with the cuisine,” Fager said.
Since taking over the Atlantic Hotel, Fager has embraced the building’s history. He can tell you how it was once home to the town’s livery stable and how salesmen who came to town on the train would set up shop in the hotel.
“That was the basis of the business,” he said.
In the 20th Century, the Atlantic Hotel served as Berlin’s phone center. It was there, Fager said, that news of World War I came to town.
By the 1960s, however, the hotel had fallen into disrepair. By the 1980s, it was even worse.
“It really should have been bulldozed,” Fager said.
He credits the Atlantic Hotel investors with saving the historic structure. Original investors included Ed Hammond, James and Nancy Barrett, Charles Jenkins Sr., Reese Cropper Jr., William and Anna Esham, William and Gloria Esham, Richard and Cheryl Holland, William and Susan Mariner, Clark and Jeanne Hamilton and Elizabeth Henry Hall. Hall died before the restoration was complete and her share was taken over by Alan Guerrieri.
Cropper recalls how Hammond and Barrett, both deceased now, approached him with an intriguing proposal. They asked if he was interested in a business deal that wouldn’t make him any money. They assured him that it would, however, be a source of pleasure.
“It was true what they promised,” he said. “This partnership is so unique because no one got into it expecting to get anything back.”
While the hotel hasn’t been a source of income for the investors — who Cropper says were at first referred to in town as “the 10 fools” — it has been a source of pride. He said the hotel wasn’t the first Berlin property to be restored but it was the biggest undertaking.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “It’s been a valuable thing to the community.”
And though there was no direct monetary return from the $1.6 million in restoration costs the partners put up, Cropper said those involved did benefit indirectly.
“We’ve gotten it back through the resurrection of the town,” he said.
Fager credits the investors for completing what he calls a monumental task.
“They loved Berlin,” he said. “Imagine if the hotel had been torn down and a Comfort Inn had been put in here. We wouldn’t have what we have today.”
Williams agrees. He says that the renovation of the building known as Renaissance Plaza, followed by the restoration of the hotel, led to a complete revival of the downtown area.
“The major reconstruction of the hotel not only brought back to life an important center of community life after almost 75 years of decline but it was clearly the revitalization project that began the re-birth of Berlin, economically and culturally,” Williams said.
On Friday, Jan. 30, from 5:30-8 p.m., Fager said the hotel would host a fundraiser honoring the families behind the Atlantic Hotel’s restoration. Tickets to the event, which will consist of tapas and wine tasting, are $35. All proceeds will go toward promoting Berlin in the coming year. Fager said the event was a way to celebrate the establishment’s anniversary, honor the families behind its success and support the town all in one evening.
“As great as Berlin’s been doing, we want to keep it going,” he said. “It’s about celebrating that and pushing it forward.”