UPDATED Aug. 18, 2008
[Archived from April 2, 2006 Chicago Sun-Times; this is one of my top three favorite hotels in America]
MADISON, Wis. -- The best hotel creates a community within a borrowed city. You are no longer a stranger in town. You have arrived. This was not lost on the Elvis Presley entourage, who knew something about weird road trips.
Anyone who has paid attention to a tour of the Lisa Marie airplane in Memphis will notice a closet that has a wooden hanger from the Edgewater Hotel in Madison. During the mid-1970s Elvis and his pals took over two floors of the Art Deco hotel on the shores of Lake Mendota.
Someone wanted to keep this borrowed moment.
I catch the King's drift. I've been staying at the Edgewater for years. It is my favorite Midwest weekend destination. You can have the French brie, wine and weekend traffic of New Buffalo, Mich. I prefer to head north for Wisconsin cheese, beer and a stroll back in time.
The Edgewater is within walking distance to the dimly lit Tornado Club Steakhouse, 116 S. Hamilton (a fine 16 ounce New York Strip is $28; (608) 256-3570) and some of my favorite dimly lit used book stores on State Street. After a day of carousing, I wind down with a bottle of New Glarus Spotted Cow at the hotel's Cove Lounge, which overlooks the lake.
I never get tired of the more than 100 autographed pictures of the Cove's guests, including John Prine, Liberace, Warren Zevon, Xavier Cugat, and Bob Denver (Gilligan) and Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper), who visited the Cove Lounge together when they were in town doing a promotional appearance for an area company. This place is like the Pump Room on steroids.
The Edgewater was built in 1948, but it still pulsates with the free-wheeling spirit of 1958. The brick-and-steel hotel is on a bluff overlooking the lake. The porthole windows and liberal use of flowed, curving lines gives the place a South Beach feel.
The late Tommy Bartlett of Wisconsin Dells fame held his first water follies during the summer of 1951 at Lake Mendota. From mid-April (depending on weather) to Labor Day, cocktails and sandwiches are served along the pier adjacent to the hotel. The pier is a perfect place to catch a summertime sunset.
The 106 Edgewater rooms are spacious, a unique feature in today's hotel market. You get a lot of bang for your buck.
The Edgewater has its roots with Chicago's Drake Hotel.
The Quisling brothers of Madison built the Edgewater. In 1948, they drafted Austin "Augie" Faulkner from the Drake to become general manager of the Edgewater. Augie had spent his summers working at
the Drake. A native of Kansas City, Mo., Augie attended North Shore Country Day School outside of Chicago with Larry Brashears, whose father owned the Drake.
Augie became the owner of the Edgewater in 1963. He passed away in 1996 at age 73. His son, A. Scott Faulkner, is now hotel president. He began working full-time at the hotel in 1978 after graduating with a business degree from Bowling Green University.
"Our logo is basically the same as the Drake's," Faulkner pointed out. "They let us steal that. We also have the Drake's basket-weaved crests on the cocktail glasses, and we got permission from the Drake to do that since my dad and them were such good buddies."
Faulkner, 49, grew up at the Edgewater. He lived there for the first year of his life, and the hotel was always larger than life.
"Bob Marley stayed here twice," he said. "It was always a different hotel when he was here" -- and Faulkner cut loose with a swirling you-know-what-I-mean laugh. "He had an entourage. And he would do his own cooking with his own spices. The halls were wafting. I played golf with (crooner) Engelbert Humperdink and found out he owned some hotels on an island. My dad would introduce me to celebrities, and my sister used to ride her tricycle through the hallways. My parents were entertainers all the way. Even when we lived in Maple Bluff three miles from the Edgewater, someone was always stopping by. But when the phone rings after midnight, it's not someone telling you how great things are going."
Some guests just improvise.
Faulkner recalled how his mother, Audrey, told him about the summer day during the 1960s when Sammy Davis Jr. checked into his fifth-floor suite. His room overlooked the lake. Later in the afternoon, guests on the hotel pier noticed Sammy hanging out of his window. He was clutching a fishing pole. Lake Mendota is stocked with bass, croppie, perch and bluegill, and Davis was attempting to fish from his hotel room.
Not long ago, Shirley Manson of the band Garbage lived at the Edgewater for nearly a year. "I remember seeing her in the dead of winter," Faulkner said. "She'd be in the lobby wearing her Green Bay Packers sweater and cap. I don't know if she enjoyed it, but she was a great guest. Grace Slick was here, and she was not an easy customer.
"Bob Dylan has stayed here three times since I've been running it in 1996. The first two stays, they wouldn't even tell us who he was or what group it was. The last time he was actually walking around the property and was quite friendly. Now, when Johnny Cash stayed here they wanted to make sure no one knew he was here. So they parked two semis right in front of the hotel to sequester him -- except that the trucks said, 'THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW.' That made it rough for him to be incognito."
Besides the Cove Lounge, guests can adjourn to the lakefront Admiralty room for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Steak Diana ($32) and beef Wellington ($29) are longtime staples for dinner and Sunday brunch ($23.95 per person).
During the 1950s and through the early 1960s, the Edgewater attracted a well-coiffed clientele. Regulars dropped in from the squeaky clean fraternity and sorority houses next to the hotel, too. That began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Around 1974, I'd go to Madison to visit my friend Mark, who was "living" in the Fiji frat house, two doors down from the Edgewater.
"The clientele has remained the same," Faulkner said. "The dress code has changed. And the fraternities are low-key now. It was crazy in the 1970s. One of them Fiji bombed the hotel with water balloons. They shot from a stationary raft by connecting two baseball bats with surgical tubing, as Mark proudly pointed out. So in the good Faulkner fashion, we returned fire -- with water balloons."
I've stayed at the Edgewater a couple of times over the past year and on each visit some serious improvements were being made to the property. "We just put in all new soft top mattresses," Faulkner
said. "Just yesterday we got the entire building wired for high-speed Internet. We used to have 143 rooms. In the 1960s, my dad chopped the rooms up to make more rooms. I brought them back to the suites and put the doors back where they belong. Older properties are just hard to keep up and you have to keep the services modern."
But I still love the Edgewater's charmingly retro motto: "Where the only thing they overlook is Lake Mendota."
The Edgewater Hotel is at 666 Wisconsin Ave. There's free underground parking and free morning coffee service in the lobby. Call (800) 922-5512 or visit www.theedgewater.com.