Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When is a hotel not a hotel? When it's the Cranford Hotel!

Go to the downtown business district in many of the older towns on the Raritan Valley railroad line, and you'll see a Victorian era building that might or might not still have a restaurant or a bar, or both. During the the late 1800s and early 1900s when the line was part of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, those were important stops for city dwellers who came out to the 'countryside' for a weekend or maybe longer. Cranford is no different, with the Cranford Hotel standing a few dozen feet away from the elevated railroad tracks.

Today, the Hotel is a local meeting place with reliable dining options and two friendly bars, but it doesn't take in overnight guests anymore. That got me curious. Did the building always offer hospitality? Who stayed there? When did they stop taking in guests? What's upstairs now? I had the chance to get a rare behind-the-scenes chat and tour recently with the Hotel's general manager, Dave Carracino.

Forebears of the current owners bought the Cranford Hotel
in the 1940s for less than $3000. 
The current Cranford Hotel building was constructed in 1893, replacing an earlier structure on the South Avenue side of the block, which had burned down. The railroad tracks were just outside the front door, at grade level in the days before the entire line was elevated to eliminate conflicts with road traffic. In addition to sleeping rooms, the hotel included a bar and a produce store on the ground floor. Visitors today might notice that the room housing the J-shaped upstairs bar has a section called the Tac Room. Barely noticeable now, that separate space is where the produce stand was, and it was still a separate room within the bar until the 1980s. Where the name comes from is a mystery; there doesn't seem to be any connection to horses.

The real surprise for me came when we went to the basement level bar. Evenings there can be a bit boisterous, with sporting events usually playing on several TV monitors, and apparently it was even more so during the Hotel's early days. The cozy fireplace dining area was originally a bowling alley, and the dartboard on the wall near the entrance was once the site of a grill that served quick meals. A relaxing game of ten pins, a burger and brew: what else could a guy want after work?

As you walk around the public areas, you can't help but notice the old-time craftsmanship and details that newer restaurants and bars attempt to recreate for atmosphere: vintage photos, exposed brick walls, wood-fronted beer coolers with those neat metal pull latches. Dave also mentioned that the acoustical tiling in the Tac Room obscures a 12-foot tin ceiling along with the air conditioning ducts.

Guests often stayed for weeks, as noted on these
40+ year-old registry cards.
All of this was very interesting and cleared up a lot of questions in my mind, but my real interest was in the upstairs rooms the public never sees. Dave was kind enough to give me a quick tour, starting with a stop at his office to check out the guest register. Opening a wooden box and pulling out random cards from the late 1950s and early 1960s, he pointed out the numbers printed at the top and bottom of each, representing days of the month. Many of the people staying there were long-term boarders, some living at the Hotel for years. They might have been working in the area and essentially just needed a place to sleep before they moved onto another job someplace else. A few of the cards were bundled together in a rubber band, with a note saying they were in arrears. Somebody owes the Hotel $150 for ten weeks of rooming!

Both the second and third floors have about five rooms apiece, plus a shared bathroom holding a toilet, sink and shower stall. Some of the rooms are larger than others, and all have sufficient space for someone who just needs a basic place to stay. Occasionally, the Hotel gets phone inquiries from travelers looking for lodging, but the building hasn't taken in overnight guests since the early 1970s. In these days of Residence Inns and Homewood Suites, most people wouldn't be satisfied with a small room and a shared hall bathroom. That's not to say that the space can't still be attractive to the right tenant for the right purpose. While the paint and plaster could use some updating, the place is sturdily built and not going anywhere any time soon. The rooms are mostly used for storage now, but you could see where they'd make good office space for small businesses, or maybe lawyers or accountants.

Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind setting up a Hidden New Jersey editorial office there, myself. Proximity to good burgers, New Jersey brews and the Newark-bound train, all in a great old building. What more could we need?


4 comments:

  1. Just wanted to stop by and say that I've really been enjoying your blog posts.

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  2. Thanks, Deb! Glad you're keeping up with us and liking what you read.

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  3. Very interesting. Thanks for the post.

    Bernie Wagenblast

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    1. Thank you, Bernie! I appreciate the comment.

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