For over a century, Crystal Beach, a community in Fort Erie, Ontario, was known for its beachside amusement park, which attracted droves of Canadians and upstate New Yorkers. But after the park closed in 1989, it was a ghost town. The area had lost its biggest employer and attraction, and many local businesses shuttered. The once-bustling centre of town became strangely quiet. Phil Smith, who grew up in Fort Erie, had just earned his realtor’s licence when the park closed. “The main streets were desolate,” Smith says.
At that time, in the mid-90s, Smith’s main business was selling cottages; he’d promise owners he’d cut their grass for free if they listed with him. “I think half of Crystal Beach was hiring me to be the realtor just so I would cut their grass.” In 2008, his gaze shifted to commercial buildings, many of which were still abandoned or in decay. His first purchase, the South Coast Cookhouse, remains a local favourite today. “The uglier and worse it was, the more I wanted to fix it up.”
In recent years, the town has undergone a resurgence tied to its beautiful beach. Restaurants, mom-and-pop shops and a few trendy boutiques have popped up in Crystal Beach. “People come for the beach and say, ‘Wow, this is cool, we should stay,’ he says. “But there’s nowhere for them to stay.”
Crystal Beach’s Ontario Hotel was once been booming, but it was derelict by the time it came on the market in 2017. Smith saw an opportunity to salvage the hotel and create an all-seasons destination. He borrowed whatever he could and dipped into his savings to purchase the property for $1 million. After five years of extensive renovations—and some Crystal Beach–themed decorating—Smith re-branded the place Hotel Philco and recently opened its doors to guests.
Here’s a look inside:
Hotel Philco has seven rooms, each with its own theme. The biggest is the colourful Crystal Beach Room, which overlooks the spot where the amusement park once stood. The room is filled with memorabilia—everything from a funhouse mirror to a car from one of the original roller coasters, The Wild Mouse. The floors are made of salvaged wood from the park’s rides and games. There are old tickets, maps, uniforms and pictures of rides. “Crystal Beach was also well-known for three food items: sugar waffles, a Crystal Beach Sucker and a drink called Loganberry,” Smith says. “When you check in, I have two sugar waffles there and a sucker there for you.”
Smith devoted only one room to the old amusement park. The rest have their own themes, each equally outrageous.
The Brewery Room is a tribute to Ontario and Niagara craft breweries, with furniture and a bathroom vanity made out of beer kegs, a beer tap holding toilet paper, bottle opener beer taps. The Bike Room, meanwhile, is covered in bike parts. Vintage bicycles hang from the wall, as do bicycle-themed 1950s Wheaties licence plates from every state and province.
The nautical-themed Captain’s Room pays tribute to the sailing community of Fort Erie and its regattas and boat clubs. It’s filled with old anchors and ship parts, buoys and life preservers. There are captain’s hats for people to take selfies. Everything is blue. As in all the other rooms, it’s filled with little details and on-theme knick knacks. “Thank God for Etsy,” Smith says.
An ode to Canada, the Cabin Room evokes bygone trips to the cottage, complete with fishing tackles, log furniture and wood everywhere. The light fixture is made out of a 13-foot canoe. “A lot of things in there are things from cottages that I sold,” Smith says. “I’d see a kitschy welcome sign made out of sticks or something and say ‘Hey, are you guys throwing that out? I’ll take it!’”
The Pink Room, or Glam Room, is filled with disco balls, lights shaped like unicorns, and a golden birdcage you can actually sit in. The wallpapers are leopard pink, the walls are pink, the couch is pink. “I even painted the toilet pink,” says Smith. There have already been a ton of calls for bachelorette parties.
There’s a Green Room, too, which has a chill nature theme. It’s has a vinyl record player and a lot of space to sit and zone out while listening.
Smith hopes Hotel Philco helps tourism in Crystal Beach, sending guests to other businesses in the area. If all goes well, he has room to expand even further. “I’ve got some ideas,” he says. “I hope it’s successful. I banked everything I have on it.”
Hotel Philco’s rooms range from $200 to $275 per night.