New Hampshire Gand Hotels
The History of Hospitality in the North Country
Once upon a time in the USA people traveled along metal rails. Powerful locomotives pulled luxurious passenger cars through the New Hampshire White Mountains, carrying the cream of society to their summer lodgings at grand resort hotels. Many were the reasons to escape into the mountains. Without air conditioning life in the city, during the hot summer months, could be uncomfortable. Equally as important was the need to see, and be seen, in all the right places.
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By necessity these grand old ladies (luxury, full-service, destination resort hotels) were large and inclusive. Every need that a guest might have was addressed. There were no nearby shopping outlets, no post office, and no local restaurants to choose from. All recreational and social needs had to be met at the hotel. These “Grand Old Ladies” were beautiful and ornate castles built against the majestic background of New England’s mountains.
Over time these mountain castles began to struggle. Automobiles reduced the lure of the railroad as a means of transportation. Now every American could “see the USA in your Chevrolet”. Wealthier Americans began purchasing second homes rather than summering exclusively at resorts. Air conditioning also made city life more bearable. Steve Barba, managing partner of The BALSAMS Grand Resort Hotel, refers to the “Bat Roost Story” as the force that finally finished off many of the Grand Hotels. In this story, taken from Carl Abbott’s Open for the Season, a slow down in business results in deferring items such as maintenance. As the hotels decline structurally, business sinks further. As this cycle deepens, hotels lower their rates which leads to further decreased income. Finally this cycle spells the end of the hotel, and they become vacant shells needing only some broken windows to become bat roosts.
New Hampshire had as many as thirty of these grand old ladies in the heyday of the industry. Many did not survive the darkest times during the fifties and sixties, even these struggled and entered bankruptcy. By the 1980’s there were four left, when the Mountain View and the Wentworth by the Sea closed, only the BALSAMS and the Mt. Washington remained. But things have changed! Today, aside from the two survivors, there are two reborn Grand Hotels rising from the ashes of decline. The Mountain View Grand Resort Hotel in Whitefield NH recently reopened after a major renovation. Along New Hampshire’s seacoast the historic Wentworth by the Sea is undergoing renovation and preparing to reopen. We spoke to Mr. Barba at the BALSAMS, and Bonnie MacPherson of The Mount Washington Resort Hotel, about the history of their Grand Hotels and the apparent resurrection of the industry as a whole.
At the BALSAMS Grand Resort Hotel Mr. Barba discussed how the architecture of the BALSAMS is an anomaly of the “form follows function” axiom. “The form of this place is causing the guests to experience the function of being a guest in a way they’ve never felt it before”. Instead of soundproof rooms, television sets, and multiple choices of where to eat; guests at the resort get to dine in luxury from a menu with no prices (dining is included in the pricing), enjoy a round of gulf at the breathtaking Panorama Golf Course, ski, snowshoe, hike, or enjoy the nightlife at one of the BALSAMS three in house clubs. Mr. Barba points out that the concept is not unlike that of a cruise ship. The Grand Resort approach also fosters family togetherness by establishing standards of conduct, eliminating debate over where to eat or what to do, and eliminating distractions such as television. Guests often comment on what a wonderful experience it is to see their children read a book from the library which can be found in each room.
In the early 1800’s Timothy Dix purchased what became Dixville from the state of NH for nine payments of $500 each, with a commitment to bring settlers and develop the land. Mr. Dix was killed in the war of 1812 and his lawyer, Daniel Webster, took over the land. Mr. Webster had no interest in becoming a settler so the obligation was not met. In 1864 a Mr. Tucker attempted, and failed, to establish a hotel in Dixville. After the Civil War came George Parsons, a businessman from nearby Colebrook who had a successful hotel in that town. He constructed the Dix House as a community project to employ his neighbors returning from the war. He and his wife, Clara Mitchell ran the Dix House as a summer resort until Mr. Parsons death. After attempting to run the hotel herself, Parsons widow sold the Dix House to one of her guests. Henry S. Hale, of Philadelphia, was a wealthy furniture manufacturer and innovator. Hale promptly renamed the Dix House the BALSAMS, and hired a noted architect to renovate the structure. Hale began a process of development and enlargement which resulted in a golf course (1897), a tennis court (1896), man made lakes, and accommodations for 400 guests, 500 hotel staff, and 100 of the guests personal staff. There were 15 farms on the property. Every animal on the farms, from the poultry to the sheep which mowed the golf course, had a pedigree.
World War I brought about hard times for Henry Hale and he sold the BALSAMS to a man named Lannin. Having just sold the Boston Red Sox, Lannon reinvested his money in the hotel business. In 1927 the BALSAMS was not sold, but traded, for the Grenada hotel in Brooklyn NY. The BALSAMS next owner could not have selected a more inopportune time to move north. A dam break nearly eradicated the town of Colebrook in 1929 and destroyed the only road to Dixville. Then came the Great Depression in October of that same year, followed by World War II. All these factors led to another sale of the BALSAMS, this time to a man who introduced open gambling to entice guests. In 1954 the government, which had been loaning money to sustain the operation, foreclosed on the BALSAMS.
At the bankruptcy Auction, Neil Tillotson bought the BALSAMS in a self described “fit of middle aged sentimentality”. His motive was an unusual one. It seems that his great grandmother (a full blooded native American) and her daughter had been a squatter in Hodge Valley (site of the present day Wilderness Ski Area). Though everyone knew full well that there were squatters in the valley, his grandmother had always sworn him to secrecy. Perhaps acting to redeem his grandmothers memory, Tillotson bought the hotel. Tillotson is also noted as the inventor of modern latex rubber process, and his historic manufacturing plant is located on the grounds.
The Tillotson’s still own the BALSAMS property, but it is operated by Mr. Barba and his Balsams Corp. Visitors today will rediscover a bit of history, rekindle bonds with friends and loved ones, enjoy a multitude of outdoor activities, partake of world class dining, and bask in the glorious beauty that is Dixville.
Local lore tells of a benevolent spirit which lingers at the Mount Washington Grand Hotel. Until recently this tale was a taboo subject for reporters who wanted to write about the hotel, but now things have changed. We spoke with Public Relations Director Bonnie MacPherson about this story, and the history of this magnificent resort.
In 2002 the Mount Washington celebrated its centennial anniversary. Unlike many hotels of the time, which were built to be essentially disposable, the Mount Washington was intended to endure. With steel supports built into its wood frame, fire proof lathing, and cement plastering; the hotel was as fireproof as a wooden building could be. Quality of construction was followed by superior accouterments such as mahogany paneled doors, fireplaces built by Italian craftsmen, and Tiffany stained glass windows. This was one of the first grand hotels to be completely electrified, and the original Thomas Edison fixtures are still in use and on display throughout the building.
Wealthy Concord NH industrialist, Joseph Stickney, opened the Mount Washington in 1902. He is reported to have exclaimed at the grand opening, “Look at me, gentleman…. for I am the poor fool who built all this”. Stickney was neither poor nor foolish. His hotel boasted all the latest technology, and every luxury available at the time. Its indoor pool, golf course, tennis course, and recreational offerings made it a choice destination. Clearly the Mount Washington was a place fit for the whose who of American society. Nearly every room had a private bath, and there was a built in sprinkler system. Having built what he felt was the best of the Grand Resorts, Stickney charged $20 a night versus the standard $5 charged at other establishments.
Joseph Stickney died within 18 months of his hotels completion. His widow, Caroline, ran the hotel after his death. Their story is one of a deep enduring love, though she was very much his junior. Because his bride loved to swim, Stickney built the indoor pool into his hotel. He also built her a private dining room, now in use as the princess lounge. Guests would be honored with an invitation to dine with the Stickney’s in their private dining room, much like dining with the Captain of a ship. Caroline was noted for always being the best dressed lady at her gatherings, a fact which baffled everyone. Though they attributed this elegance to her superior fashion sense, she had a secret weapon to ensure she outshone her guests. A stairway leading from her dining room led to a balcony where she could sit behind a sheer drape and watch her guests enter. Once she had seen what the other ladies were wearing, she was able to ensure that she had them beat.
It is the spirits of Joseph and Caroline which are said to remain at the Mount Washington. Most locals who have worked or stayed there report not seeing any sign of ghosts, but there are some with a different story to tell. Photos show a misty figure of a well dressed man with a scarf strolling through the Princess Lounge. Others claim to have seen the Princess. Caroline and Joseph are buried in a mausoleum, in his native town of Concord, which features a Tiffany stained glass window depicting the view from the veranda of the Mount Washington. It would appear that the couple reunited in death to oversee their creation. Local lore also says that when the Stephen King movie “The Shining” was filmed, the owners of the Mount Washington were approached about using the hotel in the movie. Though the owners declined, rumors persisted that the Mount Washington was the inspiration for the story. As fate would have it, MacPherson happened upon Stephen King at a filling station and couldn’t resist asking him about this. King stated plainly that he had never been to the resort, thus ending any speculation on this subject. Of course if he had stayed at the Mount Washington he might be in the business of writing happier stories!
After Joseph’s death Caroline spent some time in France. Though still mourning her husbands death, she yielded to the customs of the time. Her position in society dictated that she must remarry someone with proper social standing. While in France she was courted by, and consequently married, a French Prince. Caroline became Princess Clarigny de Lucinge, a princess by title only. Sadly, her new husband also passed away. Now twice widowed, she continued to operate a hotel in Switzerland, one in France, and of course the Mount Washington – which is where she spent most of her time.
Upon the death of the Princess in the mid 1930’s, the hotel became the inheritance of a nephew – Foster Reynolds. Foster was a man about town who enjoyed inviting friends to stay but never charged them. Then came World War II which further drained the finances of the Grand Hotel industry. In 1943 the Mount Washington was closed for a season and put on the market. Early in 1944 a Boston syndicate purchased the hotel. Fate was now smiling on the hotel. The United States government was looking for a place to host an international monetary conference and selected the Mount Washington. Extensive restoration and modernization was performed to accommodate the conference which is now known as the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Conference are results of this conference.
In 1955 the hotel was sold to a couple from Philadelphia who ran it for the next 15 seasons. In 1969 another Philadelphia partnership known as the Mount Washington Development Company bought the hotel. The M.W.D.C. had a goal of creating a sports complex at the Mount Washington. The concept was not far removed from the original concept of the Mount Washington which had offered tennis and golf since its inception. In 1973 and 74 the first Volvo International Tennis Tournaments were held on the grounds.
Unfortunately as time passed things got tough for the old hotel. Its condition declined and it came to be regarded as a run down old hotel. By 1990 the FDIC had taken possession of the venerable structure. It was then that the current owners bought the hotel at Auction for just over three million dollars. Since that time the hotel has evolved from being a dinosaur to being a historic grand hotel. Acquisitions of the Mount Washington and Mount Pleasant Golf Courses, 950 acres bordering the hotel grounds, and the Bretton Woods Ski Area led to the restoration of the original resort properties. In 1999 renovations were made to transform the hotel into a year round facility.
Today’s visitor to the Mount Washington Hotel will find a wide offering of activities and accommodations, including skiing at Bretton Woods (photo left) . Future expansions, in addition to constant updating and growth, ensure that guests have the best of the best when it comes to skiing, golfing, hiking, horse back riding, fishing, biking, dining, and many other activities. Just as in the old days, every need a traveler might have is taken into account.
When at the Mount Washington you can see the original copper Edison fixtures, visit the Princess Lounge, see the Gold Room where the delegates to the monetary conference signed the treaty, visit the historic mens locker room with its original wooden lockers and brass name plates bearing the names of famous guests like Babe Ruth, Thomas Edison, and Bobby Orr. And maybe, if you’ve made the cut, you’ll see the Princess.
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