|By Michelle Kearns, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 13, 2006 - The 137-year-old Delaware Avenue landmark was variously a mansion, a hotel, a bordello, a restaurant and a dilapidated wreck before the $3 million transformation that led to its latest, glamorous success as a hotel that for three years in a row has won one of the highest national rankings.
The AAA traveler's group, which rates 32,000 lodgings nationwide on aesthetics and service, awarded The Mansion on Delaware Avenue yet another framed golden plaque with its four-diamond rating on Wednesday, the day before the hotel's fifth anniversary.
In the years that have passed since its opening, the small, pricey hotel with big wooden front doors rigged to swing open for approaching visitors, has developed a reputation as one of the best places to stay in the city.
To illustrate how word of its amenities -- such as the 28 rooms with carved black walnut moldings, granite bathroom counters and 24-hour butler service -- has traveled, the head of the local AAA told the story of a California colleague. She chose the Mansion without checking with him, but by networking with friends. "She had consulted her sources," said Thomas Chestnut, president and chief executive of AAA of Western and Central New York.
The Mansion, with room rates from $169 to $325, is the only four-diamond hotel in the Buffalo Niagara region. As one of the 3 percent of U.S. hotels with the rating, it joins 15 others upstate, 39 statewide and 1,086 nationwide.
"So this is really an exclusive award for a terrific place," Chesnut said, standing near a table where chef Geoffrey Gatza made celebratory coffee drinks by setting Grand Marnier on fire and adding it to coffee with an orange chocolate syrup and homemade whipped cream. A palate-cleansing dish of candied winter melon he found at an Asian food store, stood by.
"We're allowed to be very creative in what we cook. Nobody ever says, 'No,'-- " said Gatza, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who explained that making such concoctions is part of the fun of working at the Mansion. It has no restaurant, but has won awards for its food, served for catered dinners and to guests.
Normally the staff is quiet about famous visitors, but last week word got out that Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Oscar-nominee Laura Linney had stayed for a few days of filming of the movie "The Savages."
Both were impressed with Buffalo and its friendliness, the hotel's three owners reported. Linney even signed a pillow with "sweet dreams," a fundraising token for a July celebration planned in honor of the Mansion's five years in business, said Geno Principe, who bought the hotel for $300,000 with his wife Diane and Dennis Murphy in 1998.
They are proud of their staff's service, which once included filling one room where children would stay with fish bowls, coloring books and plush toys. For a bridegroom who lost his wedding rings, the butler called a local jeweler and had two platinum replacements delivered within an hour.
Guests, who have personalized business cards and stationery waiting when they arrive, are treated in the evenings to waiting hot baths and the flickering of small candles.
They tell Principe they like hearing the stories about the king-size bed that country music star Faith Hill insisted on and the alleged ghost daughter of a prostitute.
"We have a ghost when we need one," Principe said of the tales guests tell him about the mischievous girl in a glowing white dress who favors the fourth floor.
One woman said she got so annoyed about the closet light going on and off in a ghostly way that she announced, "I have a meeting tomorrow, please stop!" and the girl slipped out through the closed door.
"Hotels are a collection of stories," said Principe, who has never seen the ghost himself. By the time he and his partners bought the building at 414 Delaware in Allentown, it had been vacant for 25 years.
From 1947 to the mid-1970s the old mansion had been restaurant called Victor Hugo's that closed after a fire in the apartments above. After meal service ended, the place used to be a bawdy club where, said Principe, Tony Bennett might play the piano until 4 a.m.
"It was a place that wonderful, unusual things happened in," he said.
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