Uncertain future for historic Mineola Hotel

Preservation groups hope for nonprofit status, restoration

FOX LAKE – Kim Kiesgen reached for a towel as she cleaned her 26-foot Checkmate on a recent weekday morning.

Over the boater’s shoulders loomed the decaying north face of the once majestic Mineola Hotel. The structure has a storied history dating to 1884, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and contains a treasure trove of memories for thousands of people, Kiesgen included.

“My whole family hung out there,” said Kiesgen, 58, of Fox Lake. “I miss it. We all miss it.”

Kiesgen was talking specifically of the Mineola Restaurant and Lounge, which, until 2012, continued to operate on the ground floor even after much of the structure at 91 N. Cora Ave. had been closed to the public. The village of Fox Lake and owner Pete Jakstas Sr. battled in court between 2011 and 2012 over whether the building was safe for occupancy.

A settlement shuttered the business in May 2012.

“It had a great atmosphere,” said Kiesgen, adding that she bartended at the Mineola in her early 30s, and her sisters worked there, too. “It was a great place, a fun place.”

Built originally as a private members club by directors of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1884, the building became a public hotel after Edson Howard bought and converted it in the early 1890s, according to a history produced by Lake County historian Diana Dretske of the Lake County Forest Preserves’ Lake County Discovery Museum.

Two-hundred-and-twenty-five feet long and four stories high, the building known as the Lady of the Lakes once welcomed hundreds of vacationers who traveled by train from Chicago. During the turn of the century and into the Prohibition era, Fox Lake garnered a reputation for being a drinkers’ and gamblers’ paradise. Al Capone himself is said to have been among the Mineola’s frequenters.

While the Mineola’s history is rich, its future is murky. By the 1960s, the hotel portion was closed as travelers eschewed its vintage, un-air-conditioned rooms and shared bathrooms, said Jakstas, whose family has owned the Mineola since 1943.

Over the decades since the 1960s, the restaurant and lounge continued to draw the curious as well as those who knew the building well. And 77-year-old Jakstas, a boy when his parents bought the hotel, has struggled to keep it maintained.

“The village spent over $50,000 in legal fees to get my license and close the place down,” he said. “What the village did to me was take away 50 percent of my income. … I was actively trying to take care of the building and bring it up to code.”

Jakstas, who personally backed fireworks shows that costs tens of thousands of dollars in the 2000s, said losing the restaurant business was devastating, and in his opinion, unwarranted. Married to his wife, Arlene, for 50 years, the father of four also lost a 42-year-old daughter, Karen, in the midst of the lawsuit, he said.

“Karen was the one who ran the bar and restaurant and banquet hall,” he said. “She died of a heart attack.”

And while Jakstas once dreamed of bringing the building back to its former glory, his hands now are tied, he said. The property is for sale, he added, although he would not name a price.

“I am open to offers,” he said. “It’s 17.5 acres, including the largest wood frame building in the state of Illinois, the marina and my home.”

In 2013, Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit preservation advocacy agency, listed the Mineola as among its 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois.

The agency hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. of Chicago to produce a condition assessment. The June 2013 document concluded that many repairs were needed to stabilize the building before more extensive renovation work. But it also stated “the structural systems of the building are generally intact and serviceable.”

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, said the agency remains hopeful that a developer will be found and the building saved. Its placement on the National Register of Historic Places provides a key advantage, she said.

“A future owner could use historic tax credits to rehabilitate the property,” DiChiera said. “There have been several people who’ve been focused on finding a use for the building that would keep it public.”

DiChiera said she has seen buildings in worse condition renovated into beautiful structures, but acknowledged the price tag for renovating the Mineola likely would be several million dollars.

“This building despite its current condition, can be renovated and reused,” she said. “It’s about who’s going to do it and for what amount of money and what the market in this location is going to support in terms of reuse.”

Meanwhile a local group called the Mineola Preservation Project is working to achieve nonprofit status, said Kathryn Thoman, a Wildwood resident and the group’s founder.

“We all hope for that magic buyer and developer who’s going to come along and fix everything,” she said. “In the meantime, we’d like at least to find the money to replace the roof, because that’s the heart of the problem the building is having.”

Thoman, whose group has a website at www.savethemineola.org, estimated the roof project alone would cost $300,000.

And Donny Schmit, mayor of Fox Lake, said the village would hate to see the landmark disappear. But its fate, he said, rests primarily with Jakstas.

“It’s been an institution in our town,” he said. “And yes, we would like to see it restored. However, it’s a private enterprise, and it’s up to the restoration entities and the property owner to get it restored.”

Seated back at his desk inside the marina offices while Kiesgen finished cleaning her boat outside, Jakstas flipped through a scrapbook brimming with old photographs and documents relating to the Mineola’s 130-year history.

“This was the old-style hotel with bathrooms at the end of the hall, two bathrooms per floor,” he said. “There were 100 rooms total. It had 79 sleeping rooms. There was a large area which was the restaurant for the hotel, a kitchen and service quarters, storage rooms, and another huge dance hall upstairs.”

Jakstas talked about the original gingerbread porch, his efforts to replace columns in the 1970s, how liquor license enforcement evolved over the decades, and how he spent weeks power washing and beginning to paint the mammoth exterior himself before being shut down.

“I’ve been here 71 years,” he said. “I’ve been in the marina business 61 years … all I know is the Mineola.”

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