FAIRFIELD — It’s been 76 years since the grand old Gerald Hotel, built in 1900 for affluent tourists, last accommodated paying guests.

The hotel closed in 1937 and new owners are preparing to have a different kind of paying guests: residents who will live there full-time and make downtown Fairfield their home.

The building’s new owners are accepting applications for those who want to live in the historic building as part of the Gerald Senior Residence project.

The $6.5 million project is on target for a Nov. 1 completion date, according to Suzanne Walsh, chief operating officer of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which owns the hotel. She said they hope to start moving residents in soon after the construction is completed.

Since the beginning of August, about 20 people have applied to live in the Gerald, including several who have been rejected because they made too much, or too little, money, according to Meg Varney, a housing program specialist with C&C Realty, a property management company.

Seniors who apply must have an annual income of at least $15,000 per year, but can make no more than $22,380. A two-person household must have a combined income of no more than $25,560, Varney said.

Varney said the company is processing applications in the order they are received, and that, while no one has been formally approved yet, she expects a group of tenants to be approved soon.

Even if the Gerald fills up, Varney said, applications will still be accepted and qualified applicants will be placed on a waiting list.

The hotel has 28 units, including two two-bedroom units. Varney said the single bedroom units are suitable for an individual, or for a couple.

The hotel was most recently occupied by Northern Mattress and Furniture Gallery, which closed in 2006.

Living in history

“I love that hotel,” said Carol Bessey, 75, who has explored the possibility of living at the Gerald.

She said she’s comfortable renting an apartment in Waterville at the moment, but there might come a time when the hotel’s easy access to Fairfield’s Main Street becomes important to her.

“If it got so I could not drive, or couldn’t have a car, that would be ideal for me,” she said.

Bessey said she is also drawn to the rich history of the hotel, built during the time of railroad barons and a booming American economy.

Mark McPheters, who has been a member of the Fairfield Historical Society for 20 years, said the hotel, built by Amos F. Gerald, was a popular destination site for Boston’s elite, who would take a train to spend time in Maine.

“Maine was almost like Alaska then,” he said. “It was way out of the way.”

McPheters said Fairfield and Waterville were silent movie industry filming sites.

“This was the movie capital of the East Coast, was right here,” he said.

McPheters said that the Gerald Hotel was also a place for local lumberjacks to take an occasional bath — a very occasional bath.

“In the lumbering camps, they didn’t take a bath every morning, especially when it was cold out,” he said. “They would get kind of soiled over the winter.”

At the end of the winter, he said, they would come to spend a night at the Gerald, when they would take advantage of the amenities, which included a bathtub in every suite.

Adjusting for inflation, it will cost a little less to live in the Gerald than it did a century ago.

Shortly after it opened, the hotel charged visitors $2 a night, or $60 a month, to stay in the hotel. It sounds cheap, but $60 in 1913 had the equivalent of $1,400 — a steep rent — in purchasing power today.

Today, the rates are more modest — either $500 or $600 per month for the single bedroom units; and $600 or $700 for the two-bedroom units, depending on the income of the resident.

Hotels that, like the Gerald, were built around 1900 include some of the most luxurious accommodations in the country. Many of those that have survived have become landmarks, and command rates to match.

Boston’s Lenox Hotel, built in 1900, has rates of more than $400 a night, while New York City’s St. Regis Hotel, the subject of a $100 million renovation in 1906, has prepaid rates beginning at $1,195 per night.

Another New York City hotel of the era, the Plaza, offers butlers on every floor and rates of $65 per night — for valet parking. To spend a night at the Plaza, the rates have increased from $2.50 a night in 1907, when it first opened, to, for some suites, $5,000 a night.

Compared to those hotels, the Gerald is downright plain, but it still has many trappings that recall its former glory, including tin ceilings, ornate wood bannisters, original wooden molding, and large stained glass windows.

The realty company advertises the units as having on-site laundry, a resident service coordinator, a community room, free wireless Internet, and rents that include heat, hot water and electricity. The rooms have windows and doors with the original woodwork around them.

Once the renovation is completed, the interior of the building will include displays that give a nod to the building’s history, Walsh said, including old photographs, artifacts recovered from the building and the original sign, which reads “The Gerald.”

Economic boost

Mitch Sammons, senior vice president of Sheridan Corporation, which won the contract for the renovation, said in a prepared statement that the project has allowed the company to “retain over 20 craftsmen during these times of low construction activity.”

Town Manager Josh Reny said work will continue on the outside of the building after the main renovation is complete.

The town offers a grant program to local businesses that want to do work on their facades.

Reny said the town has benefited from the presence of the hotel’s workforce, which numbered as many as 100 at times, as well as workers for the natural gas pipeline that’s being installed in the area.

“Every day, when I leave for lunch, I see a lot of the workers out there eating,” he said. “I suspect a lot of them are eating food from area businesses.”

The back of the hotel touches the town office property, and on the new site of the Interfaith Food Pantry, which is also slated for a major renovation.

Reny said the plan for how the properties are going to meld together is not yet final, but that it should result in additional parking spaces.

Reny said Fairfield’s economic development will come with time.

“I think people are realistic,” he said. “It’s not a one-year project. We still have vacant properties on Main Street. There’s still room for growth.”

What’s important, he said, is that the town’s economy is trending upwards.

Walsh said dates have not yet been set, but organizers are planning a community open house this fall and a ribbon-cutting ceremony sometime in December, allowing the public a chance to see the latest chapter in the building’s long history.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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