Island House History
From its beginning over 165 years ago as a waterfront beach house to the family-restored Historic Hotel of America it is today, the Island House has opened its doors to over a million tourists from around the world. With its handsome Victorian structure and family owned intimacy, Mackinac Island’s oldest hotel offers the authentic island experience.
Initially constructed for Charles O’Malley in 1852 as a beachfront resort, the Island House was one of the first summer hotels on Mackinac Island. In 1865 Captain Henry Van Allen, a Great Lakes skipper, purchased the resort, thus beginning a family tradition that would last nearly 75 years. During this time, he moved the hotel about 300 feet off the shore to its present location to allow for future expansion. Under Captain Van Allen’s direction, visitors deemed the Island House the “best family hotel” as Mackinac Island becomes the most popular summer destination in America.
Upon his passing, Captain Van Allen bestowed the property to his daughter. Mrs. Rose Van Allen Webster became proprietor of the hotel in 1892. Together with her husband, whom she met while he was stationed at Fort Mackinac, the Webster’s added the distinctive looking East and West wings in 1895 and 1912. The Island House enjoyed the benefits of these additions for the next 25 years as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and New York socialites enjoyed afternoon high teas and full orchestra ballroom dancing. Mrs. Webster retained ownership of the Island House until her passing in 1938.
After Mrs. Webster’s death, the hotel stood vacant for several years, as its maintenance and taxes were too burdensome for her heirs. The Island House was leased by the Moral Rearmament Association (MRA), an international peace organization, based in Switzerland, from the Mackinac Island State Park and served as the organization’s headquarters from 1942 until 1949. The group moved to Mission Point two years later, and the hotel again stood vacant until 1972.
The Island House had deteriorated so much during the vacant decades that the Chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park, W.F. Doyle, believed it would need to be torn down. It was at this time that three of Mackinac Island’s most familiar businessmen, Harry Ryba, son James, and son-in-law Victor Callewaert, recognized the Island House’s status as a Michigan landmark, purchased the hotel and leased the land from the Mackinac Island State Park in 1969.
Throughout its incredible restoration, every step was taken to preserve the striking architectural features of the hotel exterior, including its many columns, porch spindles, gables, windows, and door styles. During this two-year project, the Island House was closed to the general public but reopened with a spirited celebration on June 23, 1972. The final triumph came on August 11, 1973, the State of Michigan anointed the Island House as a Michigan Historic Landmark.
After extensive renovations during the 1980s, the next significant change for Island House came in 1995. The property underwent an extensive archeological dig to assure there were no burial grounds or fossils, clearing the way for the first addition to the hotel since 1912. The 5400 square foot addition resulted in an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, three suites, and the Ice House Bar & Grill, named after Mackinac Island’s oldest ice house located on the northwest corner of the property.
In this same year, the 1852 Grill Room was reconfigured, remodeled and a lift was added to the veranda making the main areas of the hotel barrier-free.
In 2013, the 1852 Grill Room once again was transformed by the addition of floor-to-ceiling windows giving way to a gorgeous bay view, along with updated seating in the dining room, lounge, and outdoor patio.
In 2017, Mackinac Island’s oldest operating hotel celebrated its 165th anniversary. Island House Hotel continues to be Mackinac Island’s oldest hotel and one of only two Historic Hotels of America in the Straits of Mackinac area. This status hasn’t been taken lightly ever since the Ryba and Callewaert families recognized the intrinsic value of this Michigan landmark. It is because of this dedication to the building’s authentic grandeur that the hotel still boasts striking architectural features on its exterior, including the massive columns, spindles on the veranda, and many of its original windows and doors.
Two thousand nineteen marks 50 years since Victor Callewaert saved the Island House Hotel from its pending demolition by purchasing the historic estate in 1969. Island House Hotel remains to be owned and operated by the Callewaert family. At any given time, you will find first, second and third generations working inside the hotel as well as downtown Mackinac Island where the family owns Ryba’s Fudge Shops, Starbucks, Mary’s Bistro Draught House, Pancake House, Pine Cottage Bed & Breakfast and Seabiscuit Café.
The Callewaert family remains committed to enhancing the guest experience by adding contemporary conveniences to Island House Hotel while conscientiously preserving the allure of its historic ambiance, serving to maintain Mackinac Island’s oldest operating hotel, a member of the Historic Hotels of America, a designated State of Michigan landmark and the only hotel located within the boundaries of Mackinac Island State Park.
Island House Hotel begins the 2019 season with the completion of a $4 million multi-year renovation. Guest rooms debut with a fresh coastal casual décor presenting furniture and lighting upgrades, hardwood flooring, USB charging stations, high-speed WIFI, air conditioning. 10% of the rooms received new tiling, granite vanities, and fixtures in the bathrooms. On the patio overlooking Mackinac Island State Park, a second hot tub and additional poolside furniture were added, offering guests new spaces to congregate. Renovation of the Ice House Bar & BBQ includes the extension of the bricked courtyard, curated gardens, poolside indoor/outdoor bar, tented patio, and sundeck.
The 906 Rewards Club loyalty program offers guests the opportunity to earn spend like cash rewards for food, drinks, hotel rooms, and even fudge on Mackinac Island.