From its grand stairway to its marble floors to its ornate chandeliers, the Madison House still possesses the elegant charm that guests enjoyed during the hotel's 1930s heyday.
The Madison has been one of the few survivors of Atlantic City's dramatically changing landscape over the years. Most of the posh old hotels from the city's "Queen of Resorts" era were demolished to make way for a new generation of casinos lining the Boardwalk.
There have been concerns that the wrecking ball would also come to the Madison, which has been largely shuttered since 2006. However, the stately red-brick building of Colonial Revival design may be on its way to reopening as a hotel following its sale Saturday.
The buyer paid the minimum bid of $4 million during an auction. No other bids were made. The buyer's representative, Ed Barkow, declined to disclose the new owner's name but did say he intends to resurrect the Madison.
"I think he plans to open it up as a hotel," Barkow said.
Barkow noted that the buyer lives in Florida and already owns hotels there as well as in the Dominican Republic. Assuming the buyer continues to operate the Madison as a hotel, he will be keeping alive a tradition that dates to the early 20th century.
The Madison first opened as a luxury hotel in 1929, just months after the stock market crash plunged the nation into the Depression. It weathered the Depression, made it through a bout with bankruptcy in the 1960s and avoided the fate of most old hotels when the casinos first arrived in the 1970s and '80s.
It was its partnership with the Sands Casino Hotel that allowed the Madison to continue operating after the gambling era began. The Sands used the adjacent Madison as a companion hotel for its customers, sinking $7 million into the boutique property in 2004 to transform it into all-suite lodging.
But when the Sands closed in 2006, so did the Madison. Since then, the Madison has been sealed up, except for a brief time when it served as a youth hostel for foreign workers holding seasonal jobs in the city's tourism market.
Robert Salvato, a Ventnor real estate broker who conducted the auction, described the Madison as still having "good bones." The hotel has held up well over the years, saving the new owner the trouble and expense of a huge facelift, he noted.
"It's this close to being reopened," Salvato said, keeping his fingers close together to emphasize his point. "It still has the look and charm of a hotel that is ready to go."
Salvato estimated the 14-story building would need only about $1 million in renovations to reopen. The Madison already boasts what many modern hotels are spending millions to re-create - a retro-chic atmosphere and design, he added.
"It doesn't have the posh, modern feel of Revel or the Borgata, but it does have that retro look," Salvato said, comparing the Madison with two of Atlantic City's luxury casinos.
A tour of the Madison on Saturday revealed some of the hotel's old splendor. The quaint lobby has marble floors and old-fashioned chandeliers. One of the centerpieces of the building is a grand stairway modeled after the one at Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
"It reminds me of Scarlett O'Hara," Joanne Salvato, Robert's mother, said while reminiscing about the character who swept down the big staircase in "Gone with the Wind."
Joanne Salvato, who worked as a cocktail server and bartender at the Sands for 27 years, recalled how she would spend time in the Madison when it was still serving as the casino's adjunct hotel. She expressed hope that the Madison will be preserved.
"I hope no one ever knocks it down," she said. "That would be pitiful. It would be a crime. This hotel is part of Atlantic City's history."
Currently, the Madison is configured with 126 suites. One of the guest rooms that embody the Madison's old glory is Suite 259. French-style doors swing open to a sitting room that features an old fireplace trimmed in wood and marble and a soaring ceiling decorated with crown molding.
"This is the essence of the 1920s and 1930s Madison House," Robert Salvato said.
The Madison overlooks the beach block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, giving it a prime location in the heart of the city. Next door is the 20-acre oceanfront property where the Sands once stood. Salvato said the Madison should be able to capitalize on its location when the proposed $30.6 million sale of the old Sands site is completed and plans emerge for the property's redevelopment.
"This is the most prime piece of property in Atlantic City," Salvato said. "It is literally in the center of the city. I can imagine that one day there will be a grand development project."
For tax purposes, the city has assessed the Madison at $16 million. Salvato said he expects the buyer to quickly file a property-tax appeal to reflect the Madison's purchase price.
The Madison has been owned since 1984 by a group that includes principal George Levin, Salvato said. Levin tried selling the hotel before, but each time a deal would fall through. He decided to auction off the Madison for a quick turnaround, avoiding the protracted process of a negotiated sale.
"For lack of a better term, he's ready to go," Salvato said of Levin.
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