The main commercial corridor between South Burlington and Shelburne on Route 7 boasts many ugly buildings — tumbledown motels, weather-beaten warehouses and soulless shopping plazas. But one structure stands out for its unsightliness.
The Harbor Hide-A-Way has been an eyesore since shuttering its doors in 1987. To aesthetes, the building was most likely offensive long before that.
It doesn’t make much sense that a property in a prime location across from Almartin Volvo and next to the Automaster would sit vacant so long. But, for the last 23 years, that’s exactly what the crumbling Harbor Hide-A-Way has been doing. WTF is up with that?
Before you can understand why the building just stands there, in serious disrepair, you have to understand what the Harbor Hide-A-Way once was. The restaurant got its start in 1941 as a humble hot dog stand for the visitors who frequented Shelburne in the summer. Over the years, the stand grew into a small restaurant and, with a bow window here, a faux lighthouse there, the structure eventually became a crazy quilt of additions.
By the 1960s, the Harbor Hide-A-Way was the swank restaurant in town. It was the place to take your sweetie on a date and your mother for a birthday meal. Its onetime status as a “special occasion” restaurant is odd, considering that it was totally weird inside. Mike Serrano, whose father-in-law currently owns the Harbor Hide-A-Way and the 14-acre parcel of land on which it sits, calls the décor “unusual.”
“It had this medieval atmosphere,” Serrano says. “It had a large variety of eccentric art.”
By “eccentric art” he means an arsenal of 100-plus guns hanging on the walls and a few suits of armor standing guard in the corners. There were also sabers, carousel horses and culturally inappropriate statues adorning the 8200-square-foot restaurant. Serrano refers to it as a “museum with tables.”
The Harbor Hide-A-Way’s cuisine could best be described as “continental.” Lobster Newburg was the house specialty and a total bargain at $4.75 a plate. Grasshopper sundaes, with mint-chocolate-chip ice cream and crème de menthe, were the most popular dessert on the menu.
By the early 1980s, the Harbor Hide-A-Way had fallen out of fashion. Serrano’s father-in-law, John Ondovchik, bought the property in 1982 thinking he could develop it at some point. It remained a restaurant for five more years, with Serrano at the helm for the last three.
In 1987, the family closed up shop. At the time, Serrano’s wife had just had a baby, and he was pulling double duty helping Ondovchik run the motel across the street, now a Days Inn. Not only was Serrano too busy to put in the time at the restaurant, he recalls, but the enterprise turned out to be a “money sucker.”
As Ondovchik focused on the motel, the Harbor Hide-A-Way sat empty, collecting dust. The family tried to rent the building, but no one seemed interested. Rather than selling the property, which includes three other buildings just south of the restaurant, Ondovchik sat on it, still thinking maybe one day he’d develop it.
In 2005, the state began an expansion of Route 7, a project that had been on the table since the mid-1990s. The road construction included a widening of the county’s main north-south artery — which proved devastating to any future plans Ondovchik had for the Harbor Hide-A-Way. The expansion brought the sidewalk right up against the edge of the building in places. Since all buildings must be set back from the road at least eight feet, the Harbor Hide-A-Way, should it ever be rehabilitated, would be out of compliance with state law.
The Ondovchiks have sued the state Agency of Transportation, unsuccessfully, over issues related to the expansion, namely that, as a result of the road widening, snow gets pushed into the property during plowing. In April, the family lost its appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, and Serrano says they don’t intend to pursue the matter further.
That leaves the family at an impasse. To tear the building down would cost at least $150,000 — money they don’t have, Ondovchik says. Even if they paid to demolish the restaurant, the parcel is hemmed in by Route 7 on one side and Monroe Brook on the other. Serrano doesn’t think anyone would want to develop within those physical parameters. In the family’s eyes, the property is worthless.
While that may be true, it’s not a menace, says Shelburne Town Manager Paul Bohne. The town recently received complaints about the safety of the building, but after an inspection, Bohne says he saw nothing amiss and no reason to condemn the place. Though the roof has huge holes, and the weeds are well past being overgrown, the structure is sound. Ugly, yes. Unsafe, no.
And, as Bohne jokes, “looking bad in Shelburne isn’t against the law.”