A Place in History
The Gideon Putnam Hotel is appropriately named after one of Saratoga Springs’ first settlers. Gideon Putnam, the founder of the hotel business in Saratoga Springs and the city’s “founding father”, occupies an important place in Saratoga’s history.
Gideon Putnam was born in Massachusetts in 1763. Among his relatives were early settlers, clergymen and revolutionary war heroes. Gideon’s most famous relative was General Israel Putnam. A Putnam family legend described Israel’s hair-raising encounter with a marauding wolf, which he finally killed by having himself lowered by a rope into its den. His cousin, Gideon, would demonstrate similar tenacity as one of Saratoga’s first entrepreneurs.
Gideon arrived in Saratoga Springs with his wife Doanda Risley Putnam in 1789. They had come to Saratoga Springs by way of New England. Their first home in Middlebury, Vermont stood upon the site now occupied by Middlebury College. They left Middlebury for Rutland and later followed the Indian Trail to Bemis Flats near Schuylerville, finally settling in Saratoga Springs.
Upon arriving in Saratoga Springs, Gideon described the area as a little more than “forest with a few log houses and a mineral spring”. The spring that he was referring to, High Rock Spring had long been known to the Mohawk and Oneida Indians for its healing properties. The native people called the area “Sarahoga” meaning place of swift water. George Washington, Phillip Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton had visited the area drawn by the legends of the spring’s curative powers. Today, the spring can be visited in High Rock Park near downtown Saratoga.
Gideon and Doanda settled in the area surrounding High Rock Spring known as the “upper village”. Lumbering became Gideon’s first business venture. He operated a sawmill, manufacturing barrel staves and shingles, which were floated down the Hudson River to New York City to be sold.
The family prospered and grew; Doanda and Gideon would go on to have nine children, including a son, Lewis, who was the first child of European descent born in Saratoga.
Using the money he had made in the lumber industry, Putnam later purchased a large tract of land surrounding Congress Spring, which had been discovered in 1792. In 1802, inspired by the success of the hotel that had sprung up around the mineral springs in nearby Ballston Spa, Gideon built the 70-room Putnam Tavern and Boarding House just west of Congress Spring and directly across from today’s Congress Park. Outside the tavern hung a sign painted by Doanda, depicting Israel’s fabled wolf hunt. Today the sign can be seen at the museum operated by the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs. The local populace did not share Gideon’s enthusiasm or vision and dubbed his boarding house “Putnam’s Folly”.
The townspeople were proven wrong and Gideon’s optimism about the future of the area was rewarded when the boarding house flourished. Business was so good that in 1810, Gideon decided to enlarge the hotel, calling it “Union Hall”. The Putnam family would continue to operate Union Hall until 1864. The hotel later grew to encompass an entire city block and became known as the Grand Union Hotel, one of the largest and most famous hotels in the world. The hotel dominated the Saratoga scene from 1876 to 1953, when it was demolished to make way for a supermarket and parking lot.
In addition to building Saratoga Springs’ first hotel, Gideon tapped the Washington and Columbia Springs and built a bathhouse. He also laid out a detailed street grid for the “lower village” which grew up around Congress Spring. His plans included the 120-foot wide, tree-lined Broad Street (later Broadway) as well as Washington, Congress, Federal, Putnam, and Bath (later Spring) Streets. He also reserved parcels for the city’s first church, school, and burial ground.
In 1811, Gideon began construction of Congress Hall just north of Congress Spring, but was seriously injured when a section of scaffolding at the hotel collapsed. He died in 1812 at the age of 49, as a result of his injuries. Ironically, he became the first resident to be interred in the burial ground he himself had laid out. In addition to Gideon, Doanda and a number of their children are also buried in the Gideon Putnam Burial Ground, the city’s oldest cemetery located just off South Franklin Street.
After Gideon’s death, Saratoga Springs continued to grow and take shape almost exactly along the lines that its “founding father” had envisioned. The flourishing system of springs, bathhouses and hotels soon resulted in Saratoga becoming known as the “Queen of Spas”. Politicians, entertainers, aristocrats and artists came to Saratoga drawn by the famed healing powers of the Springs. Daniel Webster, Martin VanBuren, James Buchanan, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were names that could be found in the registries of any one of the great hotels during the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Saratoga developed other attractions. In 1863, John Morrisey, a former heavyweight boxing champion who served as a state senator and congressman, established the city’s first thoroughbred race track. Today, close to one million visitors come to the track during the August racing season. Morrisey also opened the city’s first casino, today known as the Canfield Casino in what is now Congress Park. Saratoga soon became famous not only for its springs, but for racing, gambling and its social scene, and slightly more infamous celebrities began to be drawn to Saratoga, among them Lillian Russell and “Diamond Jim” Brady.
By the turn of the century, Saratoga’s popularity would prove a detriment to the fundamental qualities that enabled its initial growth. In 1890, a process was developed to extract carbon dioxide gas from the waters of the springs for sale to soda fountains. Unregulated bottling and continued exploitation of the wells lowered water levels and robbed the water of its carbonation to such an extent that the springs were in danger of disappearing.
Recognizing the fragility of this natural asset, the state of New York established the New York State Reservation at Saratoga Springs in 1909, purchasing approximately two square miles of land around the endangered springs. For eight years, the springs were allowed to rest in the hope of restoring them to their former levels.
In 1913, Dr. Simon Baruch, a pioneer of hydrotherapy, was hired to evaluate the medicinal properties of the springs. George Foster Peabody, Spencer Trask-owner of the Saratoga estate Yaddo, now an artists’ retreat-and Simon Baruch’s son, Bernard Baruch, financier and adviser to several Presidents, were all early proponents of the State Reservation.
Over the next two decades, $9 million was invested to build a number of structures on the State Reservation, funded in part by the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Loans. Billed as “America’s First European Spa”, the complex included the Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt mineral baths, the Simon Baruch Research Institute, the Bottling Plant, the Victoria Pool, the Hall of Springs, a nine-hole golf course and a small hotel named in honor of Saratoga’s founding father-the Gideon Putnam Hotel.
The Gideon Putnam Hotel opened in 1935 with 87 guestrooms, not much larger than Putnam’s original Boarding House and Tavern. The hotel was not meant to imitate or compete with Saratoga’s larger hotels and resorts-the Grand Union Hotel offered 600 rooms in 1935-but was conceived as a convenient, ideally located means of accommodating visitors seeking relief from various ailments at the nearby Spa. Stays of up to three weeks were recommended for maximum benefit. A single room with bath was $12 and a strict dress code was enforced, prohibiting sleeveless dresses in the dining room.
Several notable figures were involved with the design of the hotel. The architect was Marcus T. Reynolds, Albany’s most prominent architect of the time. Reynolds most noted design is the Delaware and Hudson office in Albany, which now serves as the administrative headquarters for the State University of New York. Built in the Colonial Revival / Neo-Georgian style, the Gideon Putnam Hotel was elegant without being overly ornate and did not detract from the other features of the State Reservation.
Internationally acclaimed artist, James Reynolds, created the murals in the dining room, depicting scenes from Saratoga society and the Adirondacks. Dorothy Tuckerman Draper, one of the most successful interior designers of the 1930s and 40s and the designer of West Virginia’s Greenbrier Resort, was commissioned to decorate the interior of the hotel. The bright vivid colors of her designs were intended to relax and invigorate visitors in keeping with the overall mission of the Spa, the healing of bodies and spirits.
The State Reservation proved to be a resounding success. In 1935, 25,000 people visited the Spa. During the first decade of operation the bathhouses were full, and the hotel was perpetually booked. Just as Gideon Putnam had to expand his thriving boarding house a century earlier to accommodate growing numbers of guests, the hotel named in his honor was doing the same and a west wing was added in 1942.
Although it was intended to provide accommodation for those seeking a regimen of hydrotherapy, the hotel also proved a natural draw for visitors of celebrity status. Bob Hope and Fred Astaire graced the registries. Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes, made the Gideon Putman a regular summer retreat. Cary Grant and the Vanderbilt Whitney’s were also among the guests.
The hotel never had much of a reason to suspect that it would have to undermine the appeal of the springs. Antibiotics promised to scale down its ambition of becoming a world-class resort. But by the late 1940s, advances in medicine and science eradicated many of the ailments that visitors had “taken the waters” to cure. Changes in the type of resort experience that Americans were seeking were also taking place. Long vacations in one spot were becoming less popular due to the mobility provided by the automobile. Very quickly, the selling points of a spa retreat were being rendered obsolete.
Changing with the times, the Gideon Putnam would undergo a series of renovations and expansions throughout the years to come. By 1953, a redecoration of most of the ground floor was completed. In 1966, the new Saratoga Performing Arts Center, located less than half a mile from the hotel, attracted new visitors, and eventually new celebrities, to the hotel. Among them opera star, Beverly Sills, and the rock band the Grateful Dead. In 1969, former servants’ quarters on the fifth floor were renovated, adding fourteen additional guestrooms. The $750,000 construction and renovation project also included the addition of a new cocktail lounge, “The Arches”, named for its classic brick arches, were patterned after those found throughout the Spa.
In 1979, a 9,000 square foot convention center was added which offered seating for 700. The convention center was named for Sir William Johnson, who as legend has it, was one of the first Europeans to be brought to the High Rock Spring by native people in 1771 for treatment of a war wound.
Between 1988 and 1990, another $3 million was spent for new electrical wiring, new plumbing, kitchen upgrades and room renovations at the hotel. Today the hotel offers 120 guestrooms.
Commonly referred to as the “Jewel of Saratoga”, the Gideon Putnam stands as a reminder of Saratoga’s past as it adapts to serve the needs of the present. The hotel is listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s guide to Historic Hotels of America, and the hotel’s setting, the 2,200 acre Saratoga Spa State Park, is designated a National Historic Landmark. Celebrities can still be seen at the hotel and in the surrounding area. Robert Redford stayed at the hotel in 1997 while filming scenes from the Horse Whisperer, and a scene from the Dustin Hoffman Billy Bathgate was shot in the hotel lobby in 1991.
With roots reaching back to the original inhabitants of the area, the Gideon Putnam continues to blend tradition and elegance to create a timeless experience, an experience that represents all that Gideon Putnam envisioned two centuries earlier.