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The Latchis: Artfully Sustained

How Brattleboro's Latchis Hotel twice revolutionized the way we look at art and business

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Thursday, June 11, 2009
Photo By Mark Roessler
The Latchis Hotel, built in 1938, stands at the corner of Main Street and Flat Street in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont.

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Consider this for a long-term, sustainable business model: build an all-in-one entertainment complex in a single, centrally located building. Hotel, restaurant, bar, movies, music, theater and shopping all under one roof, each business feeding the other. Don't build it outside of town, but right smack-dab on Main Street, hopefully within walking distance of the railroad station. Attract art-loving staff and patrons by constructing a magnificent, cornerstone building and business that fits within the city's historic environment, but also enhances it.

Rather than being a developer's new-fangled plan for reviving Springfield or Northampton, or some radical, impractical pipe dream, this compact business concept was what guided and emboldened the Latchis brothers. In 1938, at the height of the Great Depression, they built what they dubbed the Latchis Memorial Building in downtown Brattleboro. The grand Art Deco edifice still houses a hotel, a restaurant, three theaters, a gallery space and shops.

For 70 years it served and supported generations of the Latchis family, and earlier this decade it was adopted by a local nonprofit, the Brattleboro Arts Initiative (BAI). The group's mission had been to find performance and gallery space within the city and make it available for local artists and audiences. When the Latchis family began looking for a buyer who would keep both the building and business model alive, Paul Bruhn, director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, was the innovative matchmaker who saw a way for mutual interests to be met by bringing the BAI and the building together.

What was an innovative business and building for its time 71 years ago now supports an innovative way for a nonprofit to support itself and keep an historic property thriving.

*

Demetrius P. Latchis immigrated from Greece to Hinsdale, N. H. in the early 1900s and began making his fortune selling fruit from a wagon he pushed. Later he moved on up to a horse-drawn carriage, then to a storefront market in a building that once stood where now there's the Brattleboro Co-op's parking lot.

By the 1930s, the Latchis family had grown and prospered with businesses across New England. Demetrius had seven sons, and together they managed a chain of movie theaters, along with hotels, restaurants and other businesses. One of the younger sons, Peter, had invested in movie theaters during the silent era, and it was a business investment that stood them in good stead when the stock market crashed. Movies were one of the few luxuries people found the money for the last time the economy tanked, and the Latchis family ran around 20 of them.

The brothers built the Latchis Memorial Building in their father's honor, combining their business management visions and talents into a "A Town Within A TownAll Under One Roof." Building their next complex on the location of an earlier movie house, they spared no expense and took great pride in making it state-of-the-art. They declared it a "fireproof hotel" as it was one of those brand-new steel and concrete kinds of buildings that didn't use wood, and they hired a Hungarian muralist, Louis Jambor, to give the building's interiors a lush Grecian theme. The main theater was transformed through verdant murals and decorative architectural elements to an outdoor amphitheater with white-robed gods in recline in small pillared gazebos. The creatures of the zodiac swirl about on the inky black ceiling above. The Greek god motif is carried out in the lobby and foyer with sculpture, wall details and decorated floors.

The 779-seat theater was built for both live performances—there are two floors of changing rooms backstage—and for movies. Its screen remains one of the biggest in Vermont. There was also a ballroom above the lobby, and the brothers initially ran a restaurant in the storefront next to the theater. With a dumbwaiter between the restaurant and the ballroom, the upstairs space was used for many important Brattleboro banquets. From early on, the place was a success.

Anne Latchis is the granddaughter of Spero Latchis, Demetrius' eldest son and one of the brothers who originally built the hotel. She is currently a BAI board member, and as a teen, she worked in the family business.

"I grew up in that hotel," she said. "Me and my family were always there. We always had to have our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners really early at home so we could get in to show the movie. Those were always huge nights for us; the place was packed."

Her favorite book had been Eloise, the story of a six-year-old who lived with her nanny, dog and turtle on the top floor of New York City's Plaza Hotel. "And I always kind of considered myself as Brattleboro's Eloise." she recalls. "My parents let me have sleepovers for my birthday there: me and my friends would go to a movie and then take the elevator up to our room. My parents usually gave us room 312, which was the noisiest, right next to the elevator, but we didn't care because we were making more noise." Latchis said she remembered that the hotel beds of her youth had the coin-operated vibrating massage feature known as "Magic Fingers" that made the entire bed quake, a birthday party favorite.

During her teens in the 1960s, Latchis did "just about every job there was to be done at the hotel." She worked in the restaurant, known at the time as "The Billboard," and in the bar, which was known as "The Lounge." While her favorite job had been working the candy counter, when she got older, she learned the "nitty gritty of booking films. ...It's not a situation where you can just order the movies you want. We needed to bid on them with other theaters. Sometimes, in order to get the movies I wanted, I needed to make deals where I took something that maybe wasn't my first choice."

Latchis remembers business at the hotel and in downtown Brattleboro booming throughout the 1960s. They had regular guests who returned annually, asking for a favorite room. During ski season, there were times the hotel was so full the family were lodging people back at their house. Each year the Brattleboro ski jump would hold its award ceremony with great pomp and circumstance in the ballroom.

When they got old enough for college, Anne Latchis and her siblings headed out West to pursue education and lives far away from Vermont. During the 1970s the economy "shifted" and things for the town and hotel "turned a corner," Latchis said. In addition to a recession, big box retail stores gathering on the edges of communities started to threaten downtowns like Brattleboro's. Across the river and over the hills, the city of Keene, N. H. was beginning to grow and compete.

"For a while, the Latchis went from being a hotel for guests to more of a residential hotel," she said. The family-owned restaurant and bar closed, and a private Chinese restaurant opened. The theater fell into disrepair and nothing much happened in the ballroom.

In 1985, Anne and her older brother, Spero, returned to Brattleboro with a renewed interest in the hotel. Working with his father, Spero and his wife, Elizabeth, spearheaded a major restoration and marketing effort to return the hotel to the glory he remembered from his childhood. While Anne helped, she says the monumental effort it took was mostly her brother's.

"The place needed to be cleaned out from top to bottom, every surface redone," she said. "In some cases, he was having to not only clean out rooms of stuff people left behind, but he needed to help relocate the people themselves. He didn't throw anyone out on the street, and tried to treat everyone with respect, but it wasn't always easy."

While cleaning out portions of the basement for the future Latchis Brewery, Bar and Grille that opened in the late 1980s, Anne remembers finding a room full of the orphaned belongings left behind by former guests. It was an archive of the hotel's history from the '40s onward. "There were lots of suitcases, shoes, coats and umbrellas," she said. There were even appliances, "because people had been living in the rooms in the '70s, and some of them sometimes abandoned their rooms." She considered preserving them or creating some kind of archive, but ultimately decided that, as interesting a slice-of-life as they were, the hotel wasn't a museum. She held a pre-Christmas flea market.

*

Spero Latchis and his wife worked for nearly 20 years to restore the hotel, and by and large, they achieved their goal of returning it to its former splendor. Of the 40 hotel rooms, 30 had been redecorated and were guest-ready, with much of the furniture reconditioned by the owners themselves. They'd also found ways to improve on the original building layout. A second, smaller movie theater was added beneath the bigger theater's balcony, and the unused ballroom was turned into a third theater, nearly doubling the seating capacity. They also brought back the restaurant and added a brewing facility.

Eventually, though, the couple decided they needed a change. In 2001, they began actively investigating ways to sell the venture but keep both the building and the varied businesses intact. They wanted the new owners to share their commitment to the community.

A few years earlier, in 1998, in response to a series of forums sponsored by the Brattleboro Reformer, BAI formed with the mission "to develop and promote functional spaces for the production, exhibition and teaching of the performing and visual arts." The sale of the Latchis, three years later, presented BAI with a crisis and an opportunity.

"We had been doing a lot of work already," said Gail Nunziata, the Managing Director of BAI. "We had taken an inventory of the places in town that were performing arts spaces, and then an inventory of empty buildings that possibly could be performing arts spaces, and then, all of a sudden, this place that was a performing arts space dropped in our lap."

Losing the theaters would have been a devastating blow to the town and to BAI's mission, but the thought of their volunteer group taking ownership of the tremendous building and managing the collection of diversified businesses seemed beyond daunting. It wasn't what anyone had been expecting when they joined the Arts Initiative.

Under the guidance of Paul Bruhn and the Vermont Preservation Trust, though, BAI became convinced that saving the Latchis and becoming its steward would go a long way to achieving their mission, and it could be a funding source into the future. The BAI decided they would hold the hotel in trust for the community.

Bruhn and BAI spent two years raising the $1.3 million needed to close the sale, and they also worked together to resolve the complex legal issues involved with transferring a property from private family ownership to a nonprofit, largely volunteer effort. Through both state and federal grants and a tremendous amount of community support, the sale went through in 2003.

"For the two years we spent fundraising," Nunziata said, "we also spent about two years trying to figure out how to manage" both the arts initiative and the businesses. "Because the idea of a non-profit owning and operating a for-profit corporation was new and pretty cutting edge. The model is that businesses do what they've been doing since 1938, which is support themselves. But we all understood pretty quickly that they didn't have the capacity to throw off enough money to keep the building maintained."

Since the Latchis is an historic property, eligible for tax credits for upgrade and repair projects, the work done needs to be consistent with the quality of the building, and that can be expensive. "That's where the nonprofit comes in, and why the model is so good," Nunziata said. Nonprofits are eligible for preservation grants and donations for building maintenance that aren't available to private businesses.

In some cases, upkeep and creating new performance spaces are the same project. In the shop front to the left of the theater marquee, BAI is busy adding a fourth theater to its complex.

"L4, we're calling it for now," said Ben James, president of the BAI's Board of Directors. "We're trying to turn it into a theater for movies, performing arts and conferences. Jade Wah [the Chinese restaurant] used to be there way back, and New England Youth Theater more recently. We took it over about two years ago; we wanted it to be our gallery space for the Brattleboro Gallery Walks." One night a month the town transforms into a giant art space, with local artists' work hanging in spaces all over town.

"Once we opened, word of mouth spread quickly," James said. "It's amazing how you open a room like that in Brattleboro and people flock."

It doesn't hurt that Brattleboro's artist community is large, strong and active. Many of the directors on the BAI's board and the board that oversees the Latchis' business operations are artists themselves, and personal contributions of time and energy are the norm. Anne Latchis said that she now spends far more time as a director helping out around the hotel than when her brother had been restoring it in the '80s and '90s. While the building still preserves its strong Art Deco flavor, the works of local artists using many different styles are displayed throughout the building.

"We really had to think how to connect the hotel to the arts," Nunziata said. "We started a program called Book a Room at the Latchis. So an artist gets to book a room, which means they can put their art in the room, put up a statement, and, if they want, guests can buy their art. The artists also get a chance to stay in the room for free, or they can offer the room to a client or friend—however they want to use it."

The original work gives each room a different sensibility, and guests can sit with the art and enjoy it from different angles and in different lights. The reaction to the project from artists and hotel visitors has been positive.

*

Though Nunziata and James both said they were certain the innovative arts, historic preservation and business model that they've made work has been replicated elsewhere, when pressed, they could only come up with few examples. Paul Bruhn and the Preservation Trust of Vermont have made the model work in a couple of other locations in the state; a similar effort to turn the former Strathmore Paper Mill in Turners Falls into a digital film institute is in its early stages; the Amherst Cinema Arts project followed a similar model.

Given the dire state of the economy and the imminent threat arts funding in the Pioneer Valley faces, the Latchis model seems like one of the few rays of hope on the horizon. Most of the ingredients for similar projects seem to abound—historic buildings, a multitude of artists and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. The one ingredient that's missing is the leadership and vision to make it happen. To fill this last requirement, it's significant to note that the Brattleboro community didn't simply put the Latchis project on the shoulders of their elected leaders. While they certainly needed their help, when the people of Brattleboro wanted to declare where they lived an "arts town," they made it happen themselves.

An interactive panoramic tour of the Latchis Hotel is available here.

Comments (2)
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Great photos!
Posted by Eesha Williams on 6.10.09 at 14:53
Great article on a Wonderful place to spend a summer weekend!!
Posted by Heddy Pomazi on 6.12.09 at 6:09
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