In the middle of a pandemic, a historic mountain lodge in Highlands, N.C., got a new lease on life. After nearly 30 years of owning and operating the 40-room Skyline Lodge on top of the Flat Top Mountain, Robert Nass sold the property to The Indigo Road Hospitality Group in July 2020. Indigo Road founder Steve Palmer and Larry Spelts, president of the company's Lodging & Lifestyle Adventures division, had plans to substantially renovate the property from the beginning, and reopened it as the Skyline Lodge and Oak Steakhouse during the 2021 summer season.
The company had been focused exclusively on restaurants, but brought Spelts onboard in late 2019 to launch a hospitality division. At the same time, a group of investors who had put Skyline Lodge under contract for purchase contacted Indigo Road to develop and oversee a new food-and-beverage program for the hotel while another company would handle operations. “And Steve was quick to tell them, ‘Well, hold on, not so fast. We are now in the hotel business,’” Spelts recalled. The team negotiated plans with the investors to acquire a minority stake as a business partner and to operate the hotel as well—but when the pandemic struck, the principal in the deal became wary of how the hospitality industry would fare in a downturn.
Palmer and Spelts decided to press on with the transaction. “It was an amazing opportunity,” Spelts said. The Highlands is to Atlanta what the Hamptons are to New York City, he explained—“where Atlantans with the means to do so have a second home [and] where they go in the summer to escape the heat.” The market has a high barrier to entry, and Palmer noted that while there were many luxury options in the area, there were limited midscale and upscale hotels. The duo also saw an opportunity for the property’s F&B options, since Indigo Road had operated a steakhouse in Charleston, S.C., for 17 years, and the area did not have many high-end steakhouses. “It really felt like it would be a great fit,” Palmer said.
Indigo Road acquired the property in the summer of 2020 for $3.6 million, and the new owners set about renovating the boutique lodge. The property, which debuted in the 1930s, was priced fairly and hadn’t had a serious renovation since its first reopening in 1964, Spelts said. Carrie Dessertine of Mey & Co. was brought on to update the original designs of Arthur Kelsey, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The project was eligible for historic tax credits and historic preservation authorities were involved to make sure the “historic fabric of the building” remained unaltered, Spelts said.
For the renovation, Dessertine maintained a 1960s vibe with circular patterns and terra cotta flooring but added contemporary biophilic elements like wooden furniture, exposed stonework and cork headboards. “What's great about going into historic properties is that there [are] already—usually—these great bones,” Palmer said. “It was our job to restore those great bones, enhance them and stay authentic to the original design inside of the property.”
Working within a limited time frame, the team also had to install new plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that the property needed in order to attract its target demographic. “It was all the not-pretty stuff that surprised us in a not-positive way,” Palmer said, and Spelts explained that the investment group that had planned to acquire the hotel had not done the due diligence on what kind of work the plumbing and electrical systems would need. The team also filled in the central courtyard's pool, turning the space into a hub for outdoor socializing. “We haven't heard that we've ever had a guest say, ‘Oh, I wish there was a pool,’” Spelts. “They just really enjoy using that courtyard.”