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Continued renovations planned for historic Door County resort

Work on The Lodge at Leathem Smith focuses on restoring the property's 101-year-old heritage while implementing modern accomodations

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December 27, 2023

STURGEON BAY – Though Paul Meelen – a professional fisherman and chef – said much of his adult life has been spent in hospitality management, purchasing The Lodge at Leathem Smith was unexpected. 

Meelen said a conversation with a friend during a visit to Door County snowballed, and before he knew it, he was the owner of the historic lodge.

“I had thought my friend was interested in purchasing it, and I had shown him a business plan of what I would do,” he said. “He looked at me and said, ‘so, when are you buying it?’ By later that afternoon, I was at the bank and was an owner of a resort.”

Reviving a legacy
Meelen purchased the resort – located at 1640 Memorial Drive – in 2011.

Formerly called Leathem Smith Lodge – named after its original owner Leathem Smith who opened the establishment in 1922 – the property had been closed for five years before Meleen came in.

With an appreciation for the building’s uniqueness and historical value, Meelen said it was always part of the plan to restore the property to pay homage to its rich history.

“I thought it was only appropriate to pay tribute to a man who had a vision and had everything in his life turn to gold,” he said. “I thought it should be more about him and less about us. We’re thrilled to be a part of his legacy. I also wanted people to know there was new management and ownership, so I flipped the name to call it The Lodge at Leathem Smith.”

Once a name was set, Meleen said renovations began – which focused on bringing back The Lodge’s original features, while adding modern guest conveniences.

“The whole front entry was redone, and we removed the carpeting and restored the 1920 hardwood floors that are now more than 100 years old,” he said.

Meleen said guest rooms were also updated and refreshed with new linens and carpeting, and tiki bars were built on the property.

“What was important to us is that we wanted to make sure we had 22nd-century amenities but wanted to keep the historical value and the Door County charm,” he said. 

The lobby at The Lodge at Leathem Smith includes an original fireplace. Jennifer Much Photo

Meleen said many of the same decor items were maintained, and the lodge’s on-site restaurant menu drew inspiration from classic dishes and offerings from the past.

“We put our spin on it – our own signature,” he said.

Meleen said The Lodge also plans to bring back a historical favorite.

“One thing that was popular for generations was that Leathem had a Chuck Wagon, an old carriage-type buggy from back in the days with a canvas cover,” he said. “They did this on Saturday nights, and that is something we want to bring back.”

A peek into the past
When guests enter the lodge, they are met by the grand ballroom boasting vaulted cathedral ceilings and deep wood accents – the oldest and original rooms in the resort.

“There used to be kerosene lanterns in there, and they were converted into electrical, but that room, as it sits, (is the oldest on the property),” he said.

Meelen said being the first resort in Door County, The Lodge has been home to many types of entertainment.

“In the ’20s, on Saturday nights, they had the Grasshopper Dances,” he said. “All the couples came – there are great memories and historical value on that end.”

As time evolved, The Lodge began hosting weddings and other events – something Meleen said the establishment plans to continue.

“Keep in mind, we’re talking more than a hundred years (of events) – there have been generations of families and this was their spot,” he said.

For example, Meelen said, three generations in the same family got married on the same date, years apart – all at The Lodge.

“The bride ended up getting married on a Thursday, and I was like, why would you pick a Thursday?” he said. “She said, ‘well, on this date, my grandma got married here, and then my mom got married here, now I’m getting married here.”

Meleen said The Lodge has also welcomed many visitors from times past – whether they were guests or former employees.

Paul Meelen said The Lodge at Leathem Smith hosts 40-50 weddings every year. Jennifer Much Photo?

“I think the memory of this place and how it impacted the people who have chosen to spend the vast majority, if not all of their lives here are indirectly or directly connected to it,” he said. “To be a piece of this history just amazes me.”

The key to success
Meelen said he believes history and originality have helped shape his business – hosting 40-50 weddings each of those years.

“I think there’s big shoes to fill, and we keyed in,” he said. “The bar we’ve set, and the quality of what we have here – we think it compliments what Leathem Smith wanted to do, and that part is significant to us. We also have a great team.”

Meelen said his team does everything it can to provide a memorable experience for its patrons.

“For my staff and myself, we don’t lose value,” he said. “It is someone’s special day, and we go out of our way to ensure every promise we make is done, and we raise that bar even more.”

Much of The Lodge’s staff, Meleen said, have been part of the team for quite some time.

“Like Willie Schartner, my lead bartender,” he said. “He has been with us a long time and is well known around the county. He is an extension of us, and people come in to see him.” 

Into the future 
Looking toward the future, Meleen said more renovations are in the plans for The Lodge.

“In the next few years, I would like to renovate our restaurant – vaulting the ceilings and adding new decor,” he said.

Meleen said he also plans to restore the grand ballroom’s floor to its original form.

He said a new phone system and upgraded Internet will also be implemented to improve connectivity throughout the resort. 

“We will continue to reinvest in what we do,” he said. “It’s a quiet, great place – I call it casual elegance.”

Outdoor spaces will also get a refresh, Meleen said, adding appeal to the property. 

Paul Meelen, who purchased The Lodge in 2011, said he enjoys sharing the history of the property with resort guests. Jennifer Much Photo

“Our grounds would make Martha Stewart proud,” he laughed.

Meleen said he also enjoys watching families make a stop at The Lodge to pose for family portraits amongst the lodge’s sprawling scenery. 

“What an honor it is to be a backdrop,” he said.

Meleen said he’s excited to continue to share The Lodge’s history with future guests.

“So often, history fades, unfortunately – that is something we will never let happen,” he said. “We are honored to carry the torch for this lodge.”

For more information, visit thelodgeatls.com.

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