As far as we know, the home John Bryan built in 1826 at 123 Maple Ave. in Saratoga Springs was never used as an inn until late in the 20th century. Skidmore College professor James Kettlewell, however, isn’t so sure.
“There may be more to the back story of this place than we know,” said Kettlewell, referring to the historic structure now known as the Olde Bryan Inn, one of Saratoga Springs’ top eateries. “It was quite a prominent structure for its time, and it was built in such a key location, just above the High Rock Springs, that it wouldn’t surprise me if rooms were rented there. It was a destination, and it was quite an impressive building for its day.”
The Olde Bryan Inn was one of the buildings featured in Kettlewell’s 1991 book, “Saratoga Springs: An Architectural History 1790-1990.” Ten years earlier, in 1981, Dave Powers and Steve Sullivan opened the house as a restaurant.
“I think Dave was originally thinking of the place as a bar with a little bit of food, but when he brought Sully into it the vision changed a bit and it turned into a restaurant,” said Louis Maggiore, who oversees operations at both the Olde Bryan Inn and at Longfellow’s, a hotel, restaurant and conference center that Powers and Sullivan opened up near Saratoga Lake in 1996. “Because of their vision, it’s become a place where people can walk away with a real memory. That’s the business we’re in, and if we’ve done that then we’re doing our job.”
Powers and Sullivan guarantee great food, service and atmosphere at the Olde Bryan Inn, and if that isn’t enough, there’s plenty of history oozing out of every corner of the building.
“The house has a very strong design, what we call the Federal style, which was the first style after the American Revolution,” said Kettlewell. “Some items, such as some of the windows, have retained a great deal of the Colonial style, which comes before the Revolution, but it’s possible that was all that was available in Saratoga when Bryan was building his house. If you look at the details in the oval windows or the delicate slender columns flanking the doorway, that’s characteristic of the Federal style.”
According to Kettlewell’s research, the structure was built in 1826, not in 1832 as the historical marker outside the building indicates. It was made of limestone from a nearby quarry, and is two stories high along with a substantial attic.
“There’s always been a tradition of stone buildings in this part of the country because the Dutch preferred masonry to wood,” said Kettlewell. “Just looking at the building it has a pleasing aesthetic quality to it. It was a very significant building for its day, and it’s still a wonderful building.”
Used as residence
But for much of its life, it was a house. The Bryans lived there into the 1900s, and in 1925 it was purchased by the LaMountain Family. The LaMountain and Burnham Families operated Burnham’s Hand Laundry at the location until 1954 when the Veitch family — Sidney Veitch had married Bea LaMountain — moved into the home. The Veitches lived there until 1979 and sold the place to Powers and Sullivan a year later.
“It was Dave [Powers] who did a lot of work on the place,” remembered Sullivan. “The walls were horsehair and plaster, the fireplaces were covered up, so a lot had to be taken down and sandblasted. There was a tremendous amount of work that had to be done.”
The three fireplaces, church pews for booth seating and a large wall painting depicting the story in Greek mythology where Zeus comes down from the heavens as a swan and seduces Leda are among the many features that visitors take notice of. It also has a staff of over 90 employees whose primary responsibility is to see that customers have a special experience.
“I think what we want people to take away from their visit here is that the fine art of hospitality is alive and well in Saratoga,” said Sullivan. “It’s a wonderful place, with wonderful energy. Many of our employees have been with us for almost 30 years, and we have a great chef in John Capelli.”
When Sullivan refers to the “wonderful energy” in his building, he wasn’t alluding to the many ghost stories that spring up from inside the walls of the Olde Bryan Inn. And, while he enjoys listening to the different accounts of paranormal activity, he leaves the storytelling to others, like longtime employee John Kosek.
“I’ve done a lot of research and I plan on writing a book, whenever I get to it,” said Kosek, who has worked as a manager and cook at the Olde Bryan Inn. “I’ve given lots of tours of the place, and we get a lot of school groups in here from all around the area. I talk about the history, how the native Americans would come to the springs, and I try not to spend too much time talking about ghosts because a lot of the teachers don’t appreciate it.
“But you always get the kid who knows about it and asks the question,” continued Kosek. “I tell them it’s all the wonderful energy from people who have been here before, and I explain how their energy will be here when they’re gone. And if they’re second graders, I’ll tell them the ghosts are like Casper, the Friendly Ghost. We don’t want to scare anyone.”
For serious paranormal enthusiasts like Mason Winfield, a visit to the Olde Bryan Inn is a must.
“One of the interesting things about the place is that it’s built right on a fault line, right on a hill, just dozens of feet away from the High Rock Springs, which the Mohawks considered a sacred spring,” said Winfield, who is based in East Aurora in Western New York but gives ghost tours all over the state.
In August and September, Winfield spends most of his time in Saratoga Springs, where his 90-minute walks through downtown occur every Wednesday at 7 p.m. “The Mohawks were always having visions around the site, what we today would call a modern miracle, and while there are some very interesting paranormal stories about the house, I’m thinking the ghosts might precede the building and are there because of the ground the house stands on.”
According to Winfield, some of the ghosts seen at the Olde Bryan Inn include a horse and rider, an old woman in a mirror, a woman in a green dress and a soldier, probably from the American Revolution, dressed in a red uniform, indicating he was British.
Mary Ann Fitzgerald, the city historian for Saratoga Springs, loves the ghost stories, but she prefers to talk about all the history connected to the Olde Bryan Inn.
“Bryan becomes known as the first permanent settler of Saratoga Springs,” said Fitzgerald, referring to Alexander Bryan, John Bryan’s father. “He builds his home, which was right across the street from where the Olde Bryan Inn now, sometime around 1787.”
It was 16 years earlier, in 1771, when Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for North America, was carried to the High Rock Spring by his Mohawk friends to help heal a war wound suffered at the Battle of Lake George during the French and Indian War in 1755.
“After Johnson was here, word got out about the healing powers of the mineral springs,” said Fitzgerald. “The Indians had known about it for a long time, but Johnson was one of the first Europeans to come here and his fame helped spread the news.”
Philip Schuyler, whose summer home was in nearby Schuylerville, and George Washington were two other prominent Americans who sought out the healing waters located in Saratoga.
“Schuylerville was the first settlement in our area, and we think it was Schuyler who actually built a road from Schuylerville to the High Rock Spring,” said Fitzgerald. “He enjoyed the spot, and Washington loved it. He wanted to buy some land in that area but the Walton and Livingston families had already bought it all up.”
Alexander Bryan wasn’t the first settler to build a home near the intersection of what is today Maple Avenue and Rock Street, but those earlier pioneers had all left for safer locations during the American Revolution. Bryan, who did use his earlier house — now demolished — as an inn, worked as a scout for the Americans during the American Revolution, and according to some accounts was also a spy.
Legend has it that Bryan had been on friendly terms with the British command, and during the summer of 1777 had been at General John Burgoyne’s camp near Fort Edward where he learned the size of the army and then, while being chased by British soldiers, hurried back to the American side and reported to Gen. Horatio Gates. The information helped Gates prepare his defenses along the Hudson River near Stillwater and defeat the British at the Battles of Saratoga. It’s an entertaining tale, but is it true?
“We do know of the Alexander Bryan story,” said Eric Schnitzer, a ranger/historian at the Saratoga National Historical Park and Battlefield. “But many of these anecdotal stories have their written origins in the 19th century. Dozens of them were developed during the age of Romanticism and were expanded upon during the Victorian Era. There were books published on the ‘Romance of the Revolution,’ in which credit for victory at Saratoga was given to many other individuals. All these stories can not be corroborated through documentation, and the Bryan story is one of them.”