Once a quiet waterfront village, Clayton has arguably become the poster child for Thousand Islands revitalization over the past decade. Boasting some of the best activities in the region, the town’s highlights include the extensive Antique Boat Museum, the beautifully restored Clayton Opera House, as well as a number of art galleries, cafés and museums which attract visitors from across the river and the world over.
Nestled in amongst these historical and cultural attractions is the Thousand Islands Inn, a century-old hotel and restaurant which is the next one of Clayton’s treasures to be rejuvenated. Built in 1897, the inn is the longest running Gilded Age hotel in the area and has changed hands only five times. In late 2013, former diplomat Brad Minnick and his partner, attorney Jaime Weinberg, purchased the property determined to bring the inn back to its former glory, while also fostering new traditions.
Their decision to purchase the Inn was motivated by a shared love for the Thousand Islands, combined with a vision to create a great place for the community to enjoy. Minnick, who established his diplomatic career in Washington and Boston, is a Clayton native and has had a connection with the inn since delivering newspapers there on a childhood paper route. Weinberg, meanwhile, has been a regular visitor to Clayton and the Thousand Islands for the past two decades and the two own a property on nearby Wellesley Island.
When the price of the inn dropped last autumn, both knew that it was their chance to breathe new life into the historic property. “It really is a landmark building, a hub of the Thousand Islands,” says Weinberg of the Inn. They began renovations within a few days of purchasing the property in December 2013 and haven’t looked back. Their motto is ‘New owners, new traditions’, in keeping with Clayton’s motto, ‘Where the Tradition Continues’.
Along with holding the title for the oldest hospitality business in Clayton, the Thousand Islands Inn has done far more than simply act as a landmark for the area: it’s also fostered a strong community spirit spanning more than a century. After the glitz of the Gilded Age, the Inn was home to the first television in Clayton, bringing the village together to watch boxing matches and fight nights in the 1950s and 60s. Now, Minnick and Weinberg’s goal is to revitalize the Inn as a boutique hotel, by modernizing it in keeping with its rich history. They’re in the process of refurbishing the kitchen and restaurant, updating the rooms, and they also plan to imbue the carefree nostalgia of the Gilded Age, by adding a porch reminiscent of the original design.
The most exciting idea, however, is their plan to put some spark back into Clayton’s nightlife by creating a piano bar in the Inn. “Clayton shuts down at 10pm”, says Weinberg, “and we really want people from around here to have somewhere to go where they feel welcome, somewhere that’s accessible and is a great place to be.” Sure enough, the Clayton Opera House is around the corner, but there’s nowhere for people to grab a meal before the show, nor go for a drink when the performance is over. Weinberg and Minnick plan to offer pre-theatre dinner specials in the restaurant and post-performance drinks at the piano bar - and even invite the performers themselves, to the bar to continue the show.
The aim to create something for the Clayton community is a theme that permeates their plans. The community helped Brad get started at the beginning of his diplomatic career and their support has been unwavering when it comes to the Thousand Islands Inn project. Especially over the rough winter of 2013, which included more than just bad weather - it also involved the discovery of structural problems which means that the Inn will only be fully operational next season. “The people up here have been incredible beyond words, their support has buoyed us; it’s what got us through through this winter. We want to give something back,” says Jaime.
Despite the setbacks, Minnick and Weinberg remain optimistic and enthusiastic about the future. They recently participated in a local yard sale, where they sold some of the “treasures of the Thousand Islands” in order to help finance renovations. The feedback thus far, says Minnick, has been great: the community has been ‘universally excited’, and the two look forward to participating at more local events over the summer. Although the inn’s revitalization is still in the early stages, the progress the two have made so far is testament to a promising future - a future where new traditions will set the scene for the Inn’s next 100 years.
By Hayley Coristine
Hayley Coristine is an environmental and communications consultant working between Brussels, Belgium and Birmingham, England. Despite living half a world away, she’s been spending summers in the Thousand Islands for the past 15 years and attributes her interest in the environment, to countless days on the River, learning about ecology, invasive species and water policy.
Since then, she’s worked with the Environment Agency in the UK, the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge City Council, to promote citizen engagement in environmental issues. Hayley is happiest when underwater or taking a dip in the River, at sunrise. An active social media enthusiast, she has a photography blog about nature in the city (http://www.blipfoto.com/haylo53) and you can follow her on Twitter @haylo53.