A hotel has not graced Lake Minnetonka's shores for decades. But more than a century ago, the lake was known for them.

In their heyday, the hotels hosted galas on their lawns and lords, generals and common folk in their rooms. But the wood structures were destroyed by massive fires. After 1900, few hotels were built, and the last was torn down in 1964.

Since then, there's not been one. Today, the closest hotels are far from the lakeshore -- in Chanhassen or Minnetonka.

But two developers hope to change that.

Charlie James has informally proposed a 54-room hotel on property he owns in downtown Excelsior. And Presbyterian Homes' plans for redeveloping the Wayzata Bay Center include the possibility of a small, classy hotel.

In fact, Presbyterian Homes' architectural design for the entire 14-acre Wayzata Bay site is based on the look of the lake's historic hotels.

At a meeting last summer, architect Dan Ionescu, a member of the team planning the senior housing and retail development, said the group investigated whether historic lakeshore buildings had a distinctive design. They discovered, among others, the Lafayette Hotel.

The 300-room Minnetonka hotel was built in 1882 and featured peaked rooftops, overhanging gables, balconies and 10-foot-wide halls.

Ellen Wilson Meyer's book, "Lake Minnetonka's Historic Hotels," published by the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, describes those details and chronicles the golden age of lakeshore inns.

Like the old Lafyatte Hotel, Presbyterian Home's design includes steep, varied rooflines, gables and a general feel of grandeur, Ionescu said.

"The building is not exactly contextual with your downtown," Ionescu told the crowd at that meeting in Wayzata. "It's contextual with the lake's history. ... This is you. This is the lake. This is Wayzata."

Plans for the three-story Excelsior Hotel recall the history of the Lake Minnetonka hotels without replicating their style, said the project's architect, Neil Weber.

"It won't look like the old hotels -- that's not the intention," he said. "Those were utilitarian structures. Ours will pick up on the character of downtown Excelsior, with elaborate brick details."

Weber and James' plans for the Excelsior site are preliminary and currently on hold. They're waiting while the city considers plans for a commercial building on nearby waterfront property, which, if approved, would be an attempt at re-creating the historic Excelsior Casino, a pavilion that stood on the site from 1904 to 1922.

That project is controversial in part because it would use city land and could add to an already difficult parking situation in downtown Excelsior. Those plans also would block views from many of the hotel's windows, Weber said.

Although officials in both cities worry about the impact a hotel would have on traffic and lake views, many support the idea.

"If it's in the right place and it's economically viable, I'm in favor of it," said Wayzata Mayor Andrew Humphrey. "My own sense is that, boy, we need a hotel. And it's obviously part of our heritage."

Linda Murrell, executive director of the South Lake-Excelsior Chamber of Commerce, said one or both hotels under discussion are needed.

People call the chamber about hotels on the lake "all the time," she said. Right now, they have two options -- send people to a tiny bed and breakfast in Excelsior or recommend hotels in Chanhassen or farther.

"Those who might not be familiar with the lake ... often think there are hotels all over the lake," she said.

Weber and James hope their hotel adds vitality to Excelsior and its existing retail district.

They did a market study of the area, which showed "a very strong need" for a hotel. Weber declined to give details, saying they'd include the study if and when they formally apply to the city.

Presbyterian Homes, too, will do a market study for a hotel, if they include one in their general plan, which they'll likely submit to the city this spring.

It was economics that led to the decline of lodging on Lake Minnetonka, said Betty Peck, an archivist with the Lake Minnetonka Historical Society. Peck helped Wilson Meyer with research for the book "Lake Minnetonka's Historic Hotels."

In some ways, the first hotels "were necessities, not luxuries," the book says. Travel by foot or oxcart was so slow that "each lake community needed a hotel, however small and crude, even before it built a church or schoolhouse."

Trains changed this. And then the streetcar system changed it further. "Coming to the lake became simpler," Peck said. "Living on the lake became simpler."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168