The American Hotel – The Real Story as Told by a Direct Descendant
In the summer of 1876, a reunited United States prepared to celebrate the Centennial of its founding. Half a continent away, General George Custer and his Seventh Calvary had just been overrun at the Battle of Little Bighorn. At the same time on a thirty-acre meat farm off Ocean Road in the Mecox section of Bridgehampton – an area now home to multi-million dollar estates – my grandfather, William Freeman Youngs, “Will,” was born. Sag Harbor’s historic American Hotel was conceived the following year, and its story and Will’s would be interwoven for nearly a century.
Will’s grandfather Hampton Youngs had moved to the Mecox farm years earlier from Aquebogue, where he had been involved in the whaling industry and had had extensive land holdings. He and Louisa, his third wife, had two sons: William Hampton and Will’s father Addison Monroe. Addison ran his father’s meat farm, which catered to residents all over the East End, while his brother William built a company with his business partner specializing in marble monuments, and was responsible for the civil war monument that sits at the beginning of Main Street in Sag Harbor.
In 1874, Hampton passed away and 26-year-old Addison inherited his father’s farm. By the time of Will’s birth two years later, however, Addison and his wife, the former Georgia Freeman, had decided to sell. The farm was on the market for over a year until a Mr. Fields came along and bought it.
Meanwhile, in 1877, Sag Harbor suffered the third of four Great Fires of the nineteenth century. Following the second Great Fire in 1845, master cabinet maker Nathan Tinker bought the property at 45 Main Street where the Howell Inn had stood for generations and built a three-story brick structure to house his furniture business. He and his son operated their business on that site for thirty-two years until damage from the 1877 fire caused them to sell.
Addison and his father-in-law, Captain William Freeman, looked at the building and Captain Freeman suggested that they buy it and convert it into a hotel. Freeman had piloted a mail packet ship called “The Freeman” between Sag Harbor and New York and along the East Coast, but following his retirement in 1875 Captain Freeman had turned to inn keeping, running The Point House on North Haven and the East End House in Sag Harbor. A deal was sealed and the remodeling was started that same year. As partners they decided to call their new venture “The American Hotel.”
Addison took out a $4,000 building mortgage from Riverhead Savings Bank and did much of the renovation himself, hiring local craftsmen to do the work he could not. There were 13 rooms for guests, a lobby, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a dining room, bathrooms, and, of course, a bar. He took a building in disrepair and transformed it into the finest hotel on Eastern Long Island. It was in this festive setting that my grandfather grew up.
As today, many famous people enjoyed sitting at the decorative wooden bar, eating dinner in the dining room to the sounds of piano music, and sleeping in the opulent rooms of this historic hotel. People like Thomas Edison, Mary Pickford, Henry Ward Beecher, and Bella Lockwood, the first woman to run for president, were guests at the hotel, as were future President Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” who stayed at the hotel on their way up to Montauk. The Russian and Japanese ambassadors both Japan slept there while in Sag Harbor to observe the Bliss torpedo testing in 1905. As the story goes, 29-year-old Will was charged with making sure they were never in the same place at the same time, as the Russo-Japanese War had just ended.
Addison passed away in 1921, and my grandfather inherited the hotel. From Prohibition in the Twenties through the late Sixties, the hotel continued to serve dinners to prominent local families and to civic groups including the Sag Harbor yacht club, of which Addison was a founding member. At Christmas time our family would always have a huge Christmas tree in the front room of the main dining room near the windows. A musician, my grandfather played the piano and mandolin and we would sing Christmas carols to celebrate the season. Family gatherings were always held in the front room and dinner in the main dining room. As a child the hotel always seemed so huge to me with all of its rooms and doors. I would play with my cousins on different floors and we would check out the rooms when no one was staying in them. As a young boy I would ride my scooter all through the hotel, from the lobby to the dining room, into the kitchen, through the bar and around again and again until I heard my grandfather Will say, “Jack, that’s enough.”
Will was in his 80s when our family moved back to Sag Harbor in 1957, and he lived downstairs in what today is the main dining room. I moved into a room on the 3rd floor overlooking the bay and would do my homework in the lobby on the large oak table. Almost everything you see today is as it was back then. The atrium next to the bar room, however, was an alleyway called “Tinker’s Alley.” We had a ping pong table in the bar and all my high school friends would come to the hotel to hang out. The very back of the bar was a room called “The Oyster Room,” where they would shuck oysters for the dining room meals. My grandfather also had his workbench there and he would always tell me, “Jack, if you take one of my tools put it back where you found it.”
I was now attending high school at Pierson and living at the hotel. School was dismissed at 12 o’clock each day for lunch, and I would walk home to the hotel and eat in what is today the kitchen area. Returning home from college in the early 1960s, I was lucky to witness and eavesdrop on the conversations of the village “bigwigs” who would come into the lobby to chat with my grandfather about local politics. Sometimes they would talk about the old days when movies were made in Sag Harbor, reminiscing about the crew and actors of “Back Home and Broke” who stayed at the hotel in 1927 during filming.
Will passed away at the age of 94 in 1970. He had lived through the terms of 19 presidents, two world wars, a great depression, and a moonwalk. He was born 19 years before George Herman Ruth, Jr. and died 22 years after, and witnessed his grandson Jack be awarded the “Babe Ruth Player of the Year.” Over the years Will had become an astute business man, owning several homes in Sag Harbor as well as all of Chatfield Hills, 100 acres of land, and of course, the hotel (which, much like my grandfather, had become a shell of its former vibrant existence).
A year after Will died the hotel was placed on the market at a price of $75,000. In February of 1972 I received a call from our attorney, Mr. Maggipinto, that an interested person wanted to see the property. On a cold February morning I drove from Connecticut, where I was living with my family and teaching, to open the hotel. As I pulled up in front at 11:00 in the morning, standing on the curb was a handsomely dressed young gentleman who introduced himself as Ted Conklin, he was 24 and I was 29. We talked for a few minutes and then we took the tour. As we entered the lobby you could already feel his enthusiasm and excitement at seeing the inside. We talked about the history of the hotel and I told him that the Youngs had owned it for 95 years, my grandfather’s lifetime. As we looked at each room you could see the wheels turning as he envisioned what he could do with the place, a rebirth of this historic monument of Sag Harbor. We spent over an hour inside, and after we shook hands we went our separate ways and I returned to Connecticut.
In February of 1972, Ted Conklin purchased the hotel after his offer of $60,000 was accepted by the Youngs family. With his own hands, keen vision, and his insurmountable fortitude, he renovated, restored, and renewed what has become the centerpiece of Sag Harbor’s Main Street. He kept the name “The American Hotel,” which makes it the longest continuously running hotel on Long island, and the brass bar plate with “AMYOUNGS” for the original owner, Addison Monroe Youngs. The American Hotel has been lucky to have had owners who cared deeply about maintaining its integrity and historic value. What Ted Conklin has done with The American Hotel through the years is a tribute to his vision and perseverance, and its future is intact for years to come.