By Christine H. Randall
Reprinted with permission from Heart of New Hampshire Publishing
When you hear the phrase “Grand Resort Hotels” in New Hampshire, typically only four establishments come to mind: The Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, The Balsams Wilderness in Dixville Notch, and two recently re-opened and renovated hotels, the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and the Wentworth By The Sea in New Castle. But just over a hundred years ago, many more Grand Resort Hotels flourished throughout the state, products of the booming hospitality industry during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The beauty and variety of the New Hampshire landscape has always attracted visitors seeking to enjoy the scenery, relative serenity, clean air, and slower-paced lifestyle, particularly in the White Mountains, the Lakes Region, and along the seacoast. Tourism, an important part of the New Hampshire economy today, developed into thriving industry in the State during the 1800’s, and with the development of the Grand Resort Hotels, staying at “destination resorts” for long periods of time became a popular choice for many visitors.
According to information from the New Hampshire Historical Society, the railroad played an integral part in the phenomenal growth of the tourism industry, particularly in the White Mountains. The region had long been known for offering hospitality to travelers arriving by stagecoach, horseback, or on foot to stay at the many small inns, taverns, and lodging rooms. By the mid-1800’s, the expansion of rail service throughout the State created a situation where an increasing numbers of visitors were able to travel more easily and more comfortably to their vacation destinations, which in turn fueled a demand for more rooms and larger hotels. In fact, several of the larger hotels, including the Profile House in Franconia Notch and Fabyan’s in Crawford Notch, featured their own train depots for even greater convenience.
Although Grand Resort Hotels were found throughout the State, most were located in the White Mountains. Families throughout the East Coast and Canada began to leave the cities during the summer months for the cleaner, cooler air of the mountains, usually staying at one hotel for the entire season. Fathers would typically stay in the city during the business week and take the train up for weekend visits with their families. The New Hampshire Historical Society notes that during the heyday of the Grand Resort Hotels between 1885 and 1920, there were more than two hundred hotels, inns, and boarding houses in the White Mountains, which could accommodate about 12,000 visitors. About twenty of these establishments were considered Grand Hotels, with rooms that could accommodate at least two hundred guests each, and which offered their visitors a variety of amenities, including fine dining, gas lighting, post offices, telegraph offices, riding stables, and indoor and outdoor game areas, not to mention access to superb hiking, swimming, and scenery.
Many of the Grand Resort Hotels became “grand” merely because rooms and wings were added onto existing inns, while others replaced buildings that had been destroyed by fire – and very often, this happened to the same hotel. In The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains, author Bryant Tolles writes that the Pemigewasset House in Plymouth started out as a tavern in 1800. By 1841, the building had been purchased by Denison Burnam, who substantially enlarged it and changed the name to the Pemigewasset House. By 1859, the hotel had been enlarged three times, and featured a large dining room and an adjacent railroad depot for travelers.
The First Pemigewasset House was destroyed by fire in 1862, but a new hotel (the Second Pemigewasset Hotel) was built on the site the same year, accommodating up to three hundred people. It was described as being four stories high with an observatory on the top in order to view the surrounding mountains, a large, spacious dining room with tall windows, and about 150 comfortable rooms and suites which featured gas lighting. The Boston, Concord, & Maine Railroad depot was located in the basement, and there was a small restaurant located just off the platform for train passengers during stops. Tolles notes that the Pemigewasset “…possessed aesthetic attributes that only a few of the grand hotels of the same period or later could boast.” Many famous people, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died there, and President Franklin Pierce, who regularly stayed at the Second Pemigewasset Hotel. It, too, was destroyed by fire in 1909.
In Franconia Notch, one of the most well-known of the Grand Resort Hotels was the Profile House, named after New Hampshire’s craggy rock symbol for many years, the Old Man of the Mountain. The Profile House was built in 1852, three-and-a-half stories high with 110 rooms. Over the next two decades, the building was expanded to include more rooms, an enormous dining room (which could seat 500 people), a new kitchen, and a billiards room. During the 1880’s and 1890’s, a new piazza and a cupola were added. The interior was modernized as well, with improved lighting and steam heat. The hotel could accommodate up to six hundred guests, and the reputation of the dining room was outstanding. For entertainment, guests could enjoy a bowling alley, a music hall and ballroom, boating, tennis, croquet, and golf. Services, including a barber shop and post office, were located on site. A railroad station, a boathouse, and a 350-horse stable were also located on the premises, and the Profile House and its surrounding estate became a self-sufficient micro-village for its guests and staff.
The First Profile House was torn down in 1905, and a new Profile House, even larger and more luxurious, was built in its place. This building, along with most of the outbuildings, was destroyed by fire in 1923.
Another elegant grand resort hotel of the 1800’s was The Glen House in Pinkham Notch, located at the base of Mount Washington. The First Glen House, built in 1852 on the site of a former inn, featured outstanding views of Mount Washington, Tuckerman’s Ravine, and the Northern Presidential Range. By 1865, additional wings had been added and substantial renovations had been made, resulting in a 200-room hotel that could accommodate about 600 guests. The hotel was described as “ornate”, with a dining room large enough to be able to seat all 600 guests at once, balconies, and wide verandas from which to watch adventurous tourists travel up the newly opened Carriage Road to the summit of Mount Washington. The hotel later featured game rooms, comfortable parlors, a library, an orchestra, dancing, and theater, as well as outdoor activities, including lawn tennis, croquet, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and guided carriage rides to local natural attractions and wagon rides up to the top of Mount Washington.
The First Glen House burned down in 1884; the Second Glen House was built on the same site and was open for business the following year. While the design was said to be simpler, yet more elegant, than the First Glen House, the traditions of fine dining, attentive service and a wide variety of amenities remained. An elevator was added to the structure, along with a number of stairways in case of fire. The hotel was described as “…sumptuously appointed, no expense was spared to provide the height of luxury and convenience.” (Tolles, p.195). Unfortunately, this Second Glen House also met the fate of destruction by fire, burning down in 1893.
Several other Grand Resort Hotels in the White Mountains were located within a few miles of each other, and they competed with each other, continually upgrading amenities, facilities, and services. The Crawford House in Crawford Notch was built in 1850, but destroyed by fire in 1859. It was replaced by the Second Crawford House in just over two months, becoming the largest hotel in the White Mountains at the time. With subsequent additions, the hotel and its grounds expanded to cover over an acre of land, with room enough for approximately four hundred guests. Wide porches graced the exterior of the main hotel, offering unparalled views of Crawford Notch, and the owners spared little expense on interior decorations and amenities for the guests. In the mid-to-late 20th century, The Crawford House fell onto hard economic times, and it closed in 1975, with all of the contents sold at auction. The vacant building was destroyed by fire in 1977.
Located just up the road from Crawford House towards Bethlehem was Fabyan House, a five hundred-guest capacity grand hotel with excellent views of Mount Washington. The First Fabyan House, built around 1867-68, was destroyed by fire before its completion. Four years later, the Second Fabyan House was completed, offering guests all the typical amenities of the time – fine dining, game rooms, parlors, outdoor activities, and comfortable rooms. In appearance, it was more utilitarian than some of the other resorts, but still was considered quite elegant and luxurious. It burned down in 1951.
Just as transportation in the form of the railroad helped to herald the development of the Grand Resort Hotels, so did transportation in the form of the automobile help in their decline. The advent of the automobile during the early 20th century allowed tourists to get to more destinations more quickly, shortening hotel visits from an entire season to a weekend or less. The Grand Resort Hotels which hadn’t fallen victim to fire started to experience serious financial problems, especially during the Great Depression when so many people just couldn’t afford to stay at luxury resorts. Cheaper motels along the developing highways became more and more the norm.
One of the few Grand Resort Hotels that escaped the fates of fire, increasing mobility, and changing economic times was the Mount Washington Hotel in what is now Bretton Woods. Built in 1902, the Mount Washington was the inspiration of wealthy Concord N.H. native Joseph Stickney. Stickney brought in over two hundred Italian stonemasons and woodworkers to construct a Grand Resort Hotel in what was referred to as the “Spanish Renaissance Revival” style of architecture. The hotel featured a steel structure, electric power plant, and an advanced heating system. The Mount Washington Hotel was referred to as the most luxurious hotel of its day, with a staff of 350 serving over 600 guests. Train service to the hotel was frequent - over fifty trains were said to have stopped at Bretton Woods’ three train stations per day.
In 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel was selected to be the site of the World Monetary Conference, and extensive renovations were made. The Conference, involving forty-four nations, set the gold standard and established the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Despite several periods of economically trying times and a few different owners, renovations continue to be made on a regular basis, and only recently, the hotel started staying open during the winter season.
One of the main attractions of the Mount Washington Hotel, as is true of many other popular resorts, has to be its setting. It is perfectly situated against the backdrop of the several of the peaks of the Presidential Range, including Mount Washington. In the tradition of the earlier Grand Resort Hotels, the Mount Washington Hotel also offers elegant dining, exemplary service, and a host of other amenities and activities, some traditional and some contemporary, including a ballroom, lounges, golf, tennis, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, horseback riding, hiking, and downhill and cross country skiing. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Similarly, The Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch also managed to avoid the unfortunate fate of other Grand Resort Hotels in New Hampshire, and it has been in continuous operation since 1866. The Balsams started out, like many other Grand Resort Hotels, as a small inn called the Dix House. In 1895, the Dix House was purchased and renamed The Balsams by a wealthy Philadelphia inventor named Henry Hale. After a series of expansions, including the addition of the Hampshire House to the main building, The Balsams in 1918 was able to accommodate 400 guests, and it became known as a premier Grand Resort Hotel, enjoying an international reputation for excellence in dining and service. It is also listed as a National Historic Site on the National Register of Historic Places.
At The Balsams, just about everything is included in the room rate – all activities, award-winning dining (breakfast, lunch and dinner), and entertainment. Activities and services on the 15,000 acre estate include 27 holes of golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, an exercise room, downhill and cross-country skiing, shopping, movies, concerts, live entertainment, game rooms, and libraries. It would be hard to get bored at The Balsams. As an additional item of interest, one of the rooms at the hotel is called the Ballot Room, were voters in Dixville Notch (all 26 or so of them) hold the distinction of being the first voters in the United States to cast ballots during presidential elections. They vote just after midnight on the eve of Election Day.
For several years, The Balsams and the Mount Washington Hotel were the only two Grand Resort Hotels left operating in the State. Two others, the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and the Wentworth By the Sea in New Castle, had been closed for many years and were facing the same fate as the former Crawford House – an auction of the contents and fixtures, and destruction. But just after the beginning of the 21st century, these two resorts managed to become revitalized within one year of each other, thus bringing the total number of Grand Resort Hotels in New Hampshire up to four.
The Mountain View Grand began as a small country inn known as the Mountain View House in 1866, operated by the Dodge family. Over the next fifty years, the awe-inspiring views of the Presidential Range and the inn’s reputation for hospitality drew an increasing number of guests, necessitating several expansions of the original inn into a substantial hotel boasting steam heat, electric lighting, and a nine-hole golf course. Each guest room had a view of the mountains, and telephone and telegraph services were available. The hotel featured game rooms (billiards and bowling), parlors for dancing, and outdoor tennis courts and croquet. From 1919-1979, the Mountain View House was run by successive generations of the Dodge family, and they are credited with transforming the hotel into a Grand Resort Hotel, with a guest capacity of over three hundred, a large formal dining room, and several additional wings.
In 1979, the Dodges sold Mountain View Resort, and over the next seven years, the resort changed hands a number of times. It finally closed in 1986 and the contents were put up for auction. The hotel was sold at a foreclosure auction in 1990, and continued to remain empty and to deteriorate until Kevin and Joanne Craffey purchased it in 1998 for $1.3 million. After four years of extensive restoration and renovation which cost about $20 million, the Mountain View Grand was re-opened in May 2002. The hotel has 145 guest rooms, an elegant dining room, restored ballroom, an exercise room, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and Jacuzzis, a spa in the tower offering panoramic views, golf, tennis, and riding stables. In 2005, the resort was sold to Brothers Property Management Corporation, a subsidiary of Great American Life Insurance Company. Plans include expanding the golf course, adding a new tennis facility with indoor and outdoor courts, adding a state-of-the-art equestrian center, and more. The Mountain View Grand has once again become a world-class luxurious Grand Resort Hotel.
While the Mountain View Grand was saved from demolition by the efforts of virtually one idealistic couple, the Wentworth By the Sea in New Castle was brought back from certain destruction by the actions of many interested parties, particularly a group called “The Friends of the Wentworth.” The Wentworth is the only Grand Resort Hotel in New Hampshire on the seacoast, and, like the other Grand Resort Hotels, it has a long and interesting history.
Built as an 82-room resort in 1874 on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and near the Piscataqua River, Wentworth Hall was a popular summer destination right from the start. By 1879, Portsmouth businessman Frank Jones had acquired the property, now named the Hotel Wentworth, and he was responsible for successive expansions which brought the number of rooms to about three hundred, and which resulted in a façade stretching over 800 feet along the bluff. Jones also expanded the garden, added a golf course, tennis courts, and clubhouse, and hired a 16-piece orchestra to play for the guests. The hotel had state-of-the-art steam powered elevators, flush toilets, outdoor electric lights, and a private power plant.
Jones died in 1902, three years before the Wentworth became the site of the historic 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, a treaty which ended the Russo-Japanese War. The resort was noted for superior service and dining, and luxuriously comfortable rooms, attracting many celebrities, from entertainers to politicians and royalty. The resort managed to weather two world wars and the Great Depression, and was bought in 1945 by James and Margaret Smith, who had thirty-five years of successful seasons before selling out to a Swiss Company in 1980. The Swiss Company closed the Wentworth in 1981. Bits and pieces of the resort were sold off, and by 1991, the current owners, the Henley Corporation, decided to demolish what was left.
This decision mobilized a group of residents, who called themselves “The Friends of the Wentworth.” After trying to raise money and after many attempts to locate a buyer who was interested in preserving the structure, the Friends got the Wentworth placed on the National Trust for Historical Preservation’s List of America’s Eleven Most Endangered Places in 1996, creating more attention for its plight and a bringing on a series of delays in demolition plans. Finally, the Wentworth was purchased in 1997 by Ocean Properties, one of the largest hotel management companies in the country. They spent the next few years rebuilding, revitalizing, and modernizing the Wentworth, which had its grand re-opening in 2003. The Wentworth By The Sea Marriott Hotel and Spa has 161 deluxe guest rooms, two full-service restaurants, two ballrooms, meeting rooms, and enough recreational facilities to call it once again a Grand Resort Hotel.
These four New Hampshire Grand Resort Hotels – the Mount Washington, The Balsams, the Mountain View Grand, and the Wentworth By The Sea – carry on the grand resort hotel standards of excellence and traditions established almost 150 years ago – fine dining, paramount service, luxurious comfort, unparalleled scenery, a multitude of recreational amenities, and perhaps, most importantly, a return to a more relaxed way of life for guests.
Sources: Emerson, David. White Mountain Hotels, Inns, and Taverns. Dover, NH: Arcadia Publishing,1996.
Lapham, Donald A. Former White Mountain Hotels. NY: Carlton Press, Inc., 1975.
Tolles, Bryan F. Jr. The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains: A Vanishing Architectural Legacy. Boston: David R. Godine, 1998.
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