- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Capitol Plaza
Montpelier's Capitol Plaza hotel has served as a home away from home for generations of Vermont lawmakers. Just steps from the Statehouse, the State Street hotel has been the place for late-night poker games, deal making over dinner and election night celebrations.
Now the hotel's new owners are scrambling to repair damage from the city's devastating July flood and to reopen in time for the legislative session that starts on January 3.
Floodwaters inundated the heating, air-conditioning, electrical and other systems in the basement; destroyed the kitchen; and soaked the hotel restaurant, J. Morgan's Steakhouse, all the way to the top of the bar. The water crested at two feet in the hotel lobby.
The hotel had changed hands just four days before the July 10 flood, when its longtime owners, the Bashara family, sold to Jamsan Management of Lexington, Mass., a company with 70 hotels around New England.
Last week, the chilly first floor was a dusty construction site, with a jumble of furniture and equipment packed into the newly Sheetrocked corridors and meeting rooms.
Steve Merrill, vice president of operations for Jamsan Management, and the hotel's general manager, Lilli Cain — a member of the Bashara family — know they're luckier than many business owners who are waiting for building contractors to become available. Jamsan has brought in several dozen construction workers who were laboring on its other projects in New England, and it's housing them in the Capitol Plaza's hotel rooms.
If the legislative session started without the Capitol Plaza, the hotel and restaurant would be missed. The 1960s-era brick building has long been an outpost of the Statehouse, a place where lawmakers and lobbyists could unwind or meet out of the public eye.
- Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
- From left: Anand Patel, hotel owner Dilip Patel and Fred Bashara Jr.
The hotel — once known as the Tavern Motor Inn — has been a hangout for Republican Party members and legislators in particular. For a time, it housed the party's headquarters and hosted its election night soirées in one of the big meeting rooms. The GOP held its regular committee meetings there until the flood.
But politicos of all persuasions gathered in the tall-backed booths at J. Morgan's to swap stories as a model train ran in a long loop overhead. Rep. Seth Bongartz (D-Manchester) recalls playing in the lawmakers' regular poker game that went on upstairs when he was a state senator and representative in the 1980s.
"It was an honor to be invited," he said.
Before the advent of modern communications, press and politicians would gather on election night in a small building behind the hotel. There, the Vermont League of Cities & Towns collected returns from nearly 200 town and city clerks — the only immediate source of election results.
"That was the place to be — it was packed," recalled former Vermont governor Jim Douglas, who, as a legislator, stayed at the hotel in the 1980s.
"They had free parking," Douglas remembered wistfully.
Vermont Public's Montpelier newsroom and radio studio is a longtime tenant upstairs. Representative Rick Hube, a Republican from Londonderry who died in 2009, used to stop by every day during the session, longtime reporter Bob Kinzel said. Hube stayed in the hotel room directly upstairs.
"He was sort of our window into what was going on with the Republican caucus, because he loved to come down and talk to us," Kinzel said. "We'd have very frank discussions about legislative politics."
Dozens of lawmakers from far-flung places still rent rooms midweek during the session. The hotel charges them exactly what the state pays them as a housing reimbursement: $162 per night. Out-of-towners on government business stay there, too. Their numbers are growing, Cain said, as Montpelier's housing supply tightens and apartments become more difficult to find.
For Cain, whose father, Fred Bashara Jr., 83, bought the hotel out of bankruptcy in 1993, the hotel is less a political institution than it is a community one. The place keeps a list of famous diners, including Robin Roberts, a Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies in the '50s, and the actor Werner Klemperer, who played Col. Klink in "Hogan's Heroes." More recently, she said, actor and Cabot resident Luis Guzman has frequently dined there.
The Capitol Plaza is also where Cain learned about the hospitality business and where all of Bashara's grandchildren grew up working.
- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Lilli Cain
But with none of the grandchildren interested in taking over, Bashara decided to sell the hotel and restaurant earlier this year. The sale closed on July 6, just as weather forecasts predicted torrential rain.
Merrill, the Jamsan manager, was in town on July 10 to oversee the hotel's change of hands. He watched on the hotel's security monitors as the Winooski River overtopped a hastily constructed sand berm behind the building and smashed through a back door made of glass.
"What was happening was happening fast," Merrill said. "I called our corporate office and said, 'We're in trouble.'"
Cain and her husband, Brian, had returned from vacation just that day. As evening approached, Cain realized guests were foraging for food in the gift shop to tide them over for dinner.
"Brian said, 'We've got a kitchen; Steve, you're a cook.' We knocked on hotel room doors to let everyone know to come on down for a spaghetti supper," she recalled.
As they dined, the staff and about 70 guests watched floodwaters advance up the sloping floor that runs along the front of the building. J. Morgan's, which is below the lobby, flooded first.
"All of a sudden, you couldn't see the lower restaurant," Cain recalled. Guests helped her carry furniture to higher ground in one of the conference rooms, where they stacked them on dining tables to keep them out of the water.
Travelers forced off the road by the flood also walked in looking for shelter. Staff registered them by hand. With the elevators out of commission, "guests were helping other guests carry their luggage upstairs," Cain said.
She and her husband stayed in a hotel room that night. The staff member who manages the front desk overnight showed up for his shift in a kayak he'd borrowed from his neighbor. He woke the couple at 4 a.m. to report that the kitchen had flooded and helped them rescue pastries, milk and other food for breakfast in the morning.
Merrill said the new owners — who also own the Fairfield Inn in Williston and the Delta Hotels in Burlington — are taking the flood in stride. Jamsan's flood insurance will only cover the removal of the floodwater; the cost of renovations will come out of the bottom line. The owners visited just a few days after the flood and chatted with neighbors, he said.
"It was all, 'What do you need?'" Merrill said of the locals they met.
When guests do return to the rooms, they won't find much changed, Cain said. J. Morgan's is going to keep its name, though the menu will be different. The model train won't be running, because Bashara was the one who had a passion for keeping it in working order. But many of the staff have stayed on or plan to return.
"When the doors open, our guests are going to see familiar faces," Cain said.
Merrill and Cain are confident they'll have the utilities, kitchen, lobby and meeting rooms in working order by the time the legislative session begins. The upstairs guest rooms were unscathed. But the reopening date might depend on whether hard-to-find elevator parts arrive on time — and, if not, whether the state would allow them to open the rooms to people willing to climb the stairs of the five-story hotel.
"Elevators are the biggest obstacle," Merrill said.