The Belvedere Now Is In Its Umpteenth Life

April 10, 2002
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SAUGATUCK — The Belvedere Inn of Saugatuck, or at least the mansion housing it, will celebrate its ninetieth birthday next year.

But Chris Rutledge, the firm’s general manager, says she’s so busy she really hasn’t had time to make plans for the observance.

The Inn — which comes as close to anything in West Michigan to being a chateau — is a 10-room bed and breakfast with a noted restaurant that’s open to the public.

Rutledge makes it plain that she loves running the Belvedere because it’s a big, beautiful establishment.

“But also, it’s like any small business,” she told the Business Journal. “It’s a 24-7, 365-day operation and it keeps me very busy, especially when I have to drive over here at 10:30 p.m. to check in a guest who’s running late.”

Rutledge and her husband, Al, and their 4-year-old daughter live about 10 minutes away in Zeeland.

And it’s a family business in two senses.

First of all, Al is a woodworker employed in Zeeland, and his expertise comes in extremely handy when something in the 99-year-old building needs work.

Second, Rutledge runs the Inn for her parents — Dick and Marge Darby. Mr. Darby, a real estate dealer, acquired the mansion and its surrounding acreage four years ago. The Darbys envision someday developing adjoining property plus the Inn’s 5-acre site on 63rd Street just east of Saugatuck’s north exit on I-96.

Currently, the business’s clientele is roughly 80 percent tourists and wedding receptions and 20 percent corporate clients.

Rutledge explained that her goal is to increase the corporate percentage of the firm’s business mix and says that her chief problem is getting the word out to West Michigan’s business world.

“It’s a convenient drive for every major employer in West Michigan,” she said, “and it is so unbelievably quiet and peaceful here.”

The inn’s one suite and nine double-occupancy rooms average $100 a night during the off-season and $160 in the summer.

Rutledge says the site has proved to be ideal for daytime management getaways involving groups of 20 or less.

Like other inns, the Belvedere has a Web site with a goodly number of links, but thereby hangs a complication.

When the Darbys bought the property, the inn was doing business as the Belvedere Manor and it was one of perhaps a dozen Belvedere Manors ranging from Ireland, Georgia and Portland to Poland, Long Island and South Africa.

Changing the firm’s name to Belvedere Inn put the firm in the number one position among all Belvedere Inns, at least as far as the Google search engine is concerned.

Unfortunately, many sites on the Web still have old links to the firm’s previous existence and most of them have the wrong phone number and e-mail address. Thus, along with managing a restaurant and making sure lodgers have clean linins and the thousand-and-one others details of running an inn, Rutledge also is contacting chambers of commerce and tourism bureaus and the like to get them to update the Belvedere’s listings.

The mansion is an immense structure with foot-thick masonry walls, and a formal terrace and garden from which it originally was possible to see Lake Michigan. Trees now screen the view, but also are a barrier to traffic noise from I-96.

The building — done in the airy, big-window Chicago Prairie style inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright — was constructed by 1913 by a Chicago power and light company official to replace a wooden mansion summer place he bought for his family the previous year.

Early one summer morning less than six weeks after he bought the original place, lightning from a line squall off the big lake ignited the house, burning it to the ground. The family was unharmed 

The new house clearly was built to last. It has had perhaps a dozen owners over the intervening century, serving nearly 30 years as a home for the elderly. Briefly, during that period, its massive basement was designated as a cold war fall-out shelter.

It began life as an inn in 1995. Its Web site is www.thebelvedereinn.com.

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