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The charms and challenges of working on Mackinac Island include winter and water

October 04, 2018

The historic Grand Hotel is a warm-weather destination, unless you’re part of the design team—then it’s snowmobiles, ice, and winter weather

Mackinac Island, Michigan. It’s an enchanted, step-back-in-time island. An island of horses and fudge. A place where the only modes of transportation are carriages and bicycles. There are many names and memories for anyone who has visited Mackinac, a small island between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan.

But to many, the most famous or notable presence on the island is Grand Hotel, a 131-year-old hotel boasting roughly 390 guest rooms, situated atop a bluff that overlooks the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Bridge, and two of the Great Lakes—Huron and Michigan. Stantec has had the pleasure of serving Grand Hotel with mechanical and electrical engineering services the last eight years.

Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, is open from May until the end of October, so all construction must happen in the off season.

There are many unique challenges of doing work on Mackinac Island, but the two biggest are water and winter. Grand Hotel is open from May until the end of October, so all construction must happen in the off season: winter. For those not familiar with Northern Michigan winters, that means vast amounts of snow and temperatures often sinking below zero.

When we work on the island in the winter, there are no suits and ties. We dress like we’re going snowmobiling. In fact, during the winter months, snowmobiles pull sleds for transportation. Only a few horses are kept on the island during the winter to serve as horse-drawn taxis and to deliver goods.

Given its location, everything that comes onto the island must cross the Straits of Mackinac. That means anything big—all construction equipment and supplies—must come across while the water is not frozen. After that, the only route is by plane—or by snowmobiling across the frozen Straits … if one dares. Planes only fly onto the island when the weather permits. When low visibility occurs, due to snow or fog, the planes do not fly at all.

Planning for Grand Hotel projects typically starts in August, and most details are worked out before the hotel closes in October. This allows for construction supplies and vehicles (cranes, lifts, dump trucks, concrete mixers, etc.) to get onto the island via ferry before the Straits freeze. Once they are on the island, they are typically there until spring when the ice melts.

During the winter months snowmobiles are allowed and used by the locals. At other times, cars and most gas-powered vehicles are outlawed.

Getting to the island to manage construction and inspections during the winter requires teams to take a steel-hull ferry, which usually runs a couple times a day, taking workers and permanent residents (roughly 400) back and forth. The trip can take 45 minutes or longer, depending on how much ice there is for the ferry to break through.

The sound of the boat’s steel hull breaking the ice is a little unnerving. There was one trip last year where we got 20 feet from the dock and got stuck in the ice. They managed to get the boat turned around by going back and forth, and eventually went in reverse out to open water. We later found out the boat had been damaged during the ordeal, and that was the last boat to run for weeks. I ended up taking a plane off the island the following day.

One option to get to Mackinac Island during the winter months is a steel-hull ferry. The trip can take 45 minutes or longer, depending on how much ice there is to break through.

Grand Hotel was built in 1887 as a destination for the railroads (with guests taking steamers over from Mackinaw City), and for steamships from as far as Montreal. People would come to the island to escape the heat of the cities and stay the entire summer. They would come with steamer trunks full of clothing.

Over the years, Grand Hotel has grown. Today it is recognized as a four-diamond hotel by AAA. It sits among the exclusive Historic Hotels of America list and is a registered national historic landmark. It’s known for having the longest front porch in the world at 660 feet—more than two football fields.

A typical stay includes breakfast and a five-course dinner. After 6:30 p.m. all guests must wear formal attire, resulting in a dressed-to-impress buzz against the music of a live band during dinner.

When we work on the island in the winter, there are no suit and ties. We dress like we’re going snowmobiling.

Since 1933, the Musser family has preserved the history and tradition of the Grand. R.D. (Dan) Musser III is the current president. He has taken great care to nurture and improve the experience for all guests. With this, he has tried to bring the best design team to the island to complete the hotel’s renovations and additions.

Carleton Varney, a protégé of Dorothy Draper, has been designing interiors at the hotel for many years. He is known for using a large palette of vivid colors; each hotel room boasts a different design. Given the hotel’s legacy, the Musser family enlisted historic preservation architect firm Hopkins Burns Design Studio to preserve and expand the hotel. They’ve been involved in all updates there for the last 30 years.

The Musser family asked Hopkins and Burns to contract with new engineers to ensure the hotel’s systems would be maintained and upgraded as user needs and building codes evolved. This is where Stantec enters Grand Hotel’s history.

Over the years, Stantec has worked with the Grand Hotel team to add air conditioning to all the rooms, add all electric boilers (there is no natural gas on the island), upgrade and monitor the electrical systems, provide award-winning lighting design and engineering services for the renovations and additions, including the first-lady suites and Millennium addition.

Even though the winter work is hard and cold, it all pays off in the spring when you start to see the buds on the lilac bushes, the tulips pushing up, and your new addition to the majestic lady-Grand Hotel. This what makes this island and being part of the work there magical!

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