Christine Pesola's heart sank as she gazed inside what was left of the Hotel Northland in Marquette, Mich., once the social center of a small but busy downtown by the Lake Superior shore.
In its heyday a half-century ago, the Northland was host to visiting politicians, high-society weddings, fancy New Year's Eve parties, the occasional celebrity such as Amelia Earhart, Duke Ellington or Abbott and Costello.
Now it was an abandoned, decaying shell. Pungent carcasses of skunks and birds littered the bare floors. Walls were filthy, windows broken. "It was an eyesore... a big, ugly thing sitting here on the corner," Pesola recalls. Three years later, the historic hotel is back in business with its former splendor and a new name: the Landmark Inn. Pesola and her husband, Bruce, have refurbished the six-story structure from top to bottom, replacing everything but the marble staircase and brass hand railings. It boasts a spacious lobby with crystal chandeliers, an English-style pub, a formal dining room overlooking Lake Superior and modern touches such as an exercise room. "They've done a beautiful job. I never thought I'd see that place up and running again," says local historian Fred Rydholm, who recalls when the Northland was a beehive of activity -- the place to cut a business deal, enjoy Sunday dinner or unwind after work over a drink and cigarette. The hotel's rebirth coincides with a nationwide trend. Historic downtown hotels, symbols of glamor and focal points of community life that faded with the rise of suburbs and chain motels, are enjoying something of a renaissance. "History is hot right now," says Mary Billingsley, spokeswoman for Historic Hotels of America, an arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. Her group was founded a decade ago to promote hotels at least 50 years old that have been renovated but retain their original architecture and ambiance. Since then, its membership has jumped from 32 to 127. Fixing up an aging hotel can be a hugely expensive gamble. The Pesolas spent $6 million, a small investment compared with the recent $50 million restoration of the Omni Parker House in Boston. …