Project to Restore Hotel Casa Blanca in Idlewild
Younger generations may not recall Idlewild in its heyday, nor the Hotel Casa Blanca for that matter.
The town earned the name ‘Black Eden,’ serving as a safe haven for Black Americans during segregation. It also earned a spot in the Green Book, a guidebook for Black American travelers providing a list of hotels, boarding houses, taverns, restaurants that were safe to visit.
Idlewild’s identity has withstood the test of time, but many of its buildings have fallen into disrepair as the town’s purpose, in some ways, faded into history.
But as for the fate of Idlewild’s Hotel Casa Blanca- which opened in 1950- its undergoing restorations, thanks to 1st Neighbor, founded by three Black female educators; Bette Wiggins, Dr. Charlene Austin and Dr. Ida Short.
“We hit the ground running last year, near the end of last year,” says Dr. Austin. “We decided, ‘hey, we’ve got to get this moving.’ I didn’t want it to sit because the more you leave something vacant and there’s no life in it the more it becomes dilapidated. You need the human life in there.”
Austin fell in love with Idlewild walking along its lakes- as many people have before her. And, she fell in love with the 35 bedroom hotel and it’s unique architecture.
“This is the place where people wanted to stay and they would turn away 500 people at a time because there wasn’t any room,” says Austin.
It’s the love for the community and its culture that inspired the restoration project which started late last year. 1st Neighbor acquired the building from local, John Meeks, who also fell in love with Idlewild. Before his recent death, Meeks asked that the Hotel Casa Blanca be restored for future generations.
Part of preserving that legacy is creating a museum in Hotel Casa Blanca, along with a bed and breakfast. The building will also serve as a learning center for the community.
“We want to educate the community and anything that they need helping with,” says Austin. “Whether that’s literacy, learning how to read, whether that’s helping with homework, whether that’s teaching people or training people how to interview for jobs or fill out applications.”
As for the needed repairs, the structure has considerable water damage. Beams and joints have been replaced and much of the inside has been gutted.
“The next thing that we’re probably going to do is probably do as much as we can in the building then we will have a structural engineer come in and try to do some CAD drawings to see what we need to do next,” says Austin. Windows and doors will also be replaced to seal off the interior from Michigan weather.
The restoration requires the help of community members who are willing to donate their time or money towards the endeavor.
“This hotel represents not only the past of my people, but the future of how it could be with the inclusion of everybody helping us to make this better,” Austin says.
The hope is to have a completely renovated building, open to the public, by late 2023 or early 2024.