Lavish photos, lackluster text document the grand seaside hotels of nineteenth-century Maine and New England.
Summer tourism is so embedded in the economic and cultural fabric of our coast that it's hard to imagine life without it. But until the middle decades of the nineteenth century, tourism and the summer vacation didn't even exist. Most people had neither the time nor resources for recreational travel, and those who did - particularly in Puritan New England - were restrained by cultural taboos equating leisure with sloth and immorality. [For the rest of this story, see the July 2008 issue of Down East.]Thus, summer vacation in New England largely began under the guise of health care. In the heat of summer, those with spare time and means (teachers, college professors, and the wealthy) traveled to places like Maine for the "healthful effects" of ocean air. Impromptu camps gave way to boarding houses, spas and, by mid-century, the grand resort hotel, which fundamentally reshaped life - and the landscape - on the Maine coast.
The hotels were grand and numerous, dotting the coast and islands from the Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, New Hampshire, to the Algonquin Inn in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, both of which, improbably, remain in business today. In its heyday in the 1890s, the Wentworth accommodated six hundred guests, while Bar Harbor's Rodick House took in seven hundred, making it, for a time, the largest hotel in New England. The old Samoset Hotel in Rockland (1889-1972) had banquet and billiard halls, a golf course and boat house, the latest plumbing, lighting, and communication technologies, and a special outbuilding just to house the guests' chauffeurs. (The current Samoset, which stands just over the town line in Rockport, was built in 1974.)
By the end of the nineteenth century there were dozens of these sprawling, opulent hotels looming over Maine's shores and hundreds of smaller guesthouses, and their presence transformed life in Maine. Pleased at finding a place to "get away from it all," thousands built their own cottages, creating the clustered summer colonies and mansion-like retreats that many associate the coast with today. The guests' demand for food and services revolutionized the lobster industry and provided seasonal jobs in long-depressed Maine communities.
Now the grand hotels are all but gone. Fires, cottages, the Great Depression, and the automobile all played a part in eroding the hotels' business model. Only a handful remain in Maine, Northeast Harbor's Asticou Inn, the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport, and the Ocean View in Biddeford (now a Catholic spiritual center) among them.
The illustrations in Bryant F. Tolles Jr.'s Summer by the Seaside: The Architecture of New England Coastal Resort Hotels, 1820-1950 (University Press of New England, Dartmouth, New Hampshire; hardcover; 272 pages; $50) give a powerful sense of what has been lost. Vintage photographs, etchings, and architectural plans whisk readers along the New England coast, past one elegant wooden structure after another, some of them veritable Versailles, only in Queen Anne or Second Empire style, with verandas, shingled towers, and rows of top-floor dormers. It's enough to make a preservationist weep, particularly one familiar with what's replaced them.
Unfortunately, the text contributes little to one's understanding of the hotels, their architecture, or their pivotal role in the development of coastal New England. Tolles' writing is dry, plodding, and clumsy, a mind-numbing succession of hotels and their essential specifications that fails to convey any real sense of what these establishments were like, how they came about, who stayed in them, and why they did so, and why most, but not all, failed in the early twentieth century.
Tolles' introduction does make clear that the hotels attracted financially secure social climbers looking for "a stage-like environment for [the] display [and observation] of wealth, social position, and fashion." The hotels, with their at-the-time revolutionary elevators, telephones, hot running water, and electric lighting were exclusive, self-contained, and, for a time, enormously profitable. However, none of this is brought to life. You don't hear what guests had to say about their stay, what owners sought in the design of their facilities, or what actually happened on these social stages. There are no reminisces of former hotel workers, scant glimpses of resort life, and few descriptions of the hotels often spectacular destruction. For an architectural volume, there's surprisingly little sense of what individual designs were meant to convey, next to nothing on interiors (apart from floor plans), and even less on the hotel's lasting architectural legacy. (Old Orchard's new Grand Victorian complex, for instance, mimics elements of the Hotel Velvet, which once stood on the site.)
Fortunately, you can learn a great deal about the grand hotels by reading Pamela J. Belanger's Inventing Acadia, G.W. Helfrich and Gladys O'Neil's Lost Bar Harbor, or Cleveland Amory's 1948 classic The Last Resorts. When you do, you might keep Summer by the Seaside alongside, for the pictures.
- By: Colin Woodard