Daily Archives: July 26, 2012

Clapboard Castles

I know that the great American photographer Walker Evans (1903-75) liked Greek Revival houses, factories, main streets, roadside advertising, picture postcards, and people from all walks of life, but I think he really, really liked hotels. In the vast Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are many images of hotels, large and small, and I’ve recently come into possession of a Fortune Magazine article from August 1949 in which he photographs and writes about some of the most famous New England resort hotels of the last century. In “Summer North of Boston”, Evans refers to one of these grand hotels, the Poland Springs House in South Poland, Maine, as “the nation’s uttermost dream of secular grandeur, this clapboard castle, turreted, porticoed, balustraded, oriflammed”. And when you see the photographs of this sprawling hotel (erected in 1876 and destroyed by fire in 1975), you know just what he means.

Scan from “Summer North of Boston” by Walker Evans, Fortune Magazine, August 1949 and original photograph and c. 1910 postcard of the Polar Springs House from the Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1894 menu from the Polar Springs House, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

I really wish I had seen this amazing building before it burned to the ground in what all the accounts describe as a “spectacular” fire–a fate that it shared with most of the grand hotels in Evans’ article.  His “north of Boston” encompasses a triangular region between the North Shore towns surrounding Salem in the south, Bar Harbor, Maine in the north, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the west. Within this area were the New Ocean House in Swampscott (1884-1969), Oceanside in Magnolia (a village of Gloucester, Massachusetts:  1876-1958), Wentworth-by-the-Sea in New Castle, New Hampshire (built in 1874 and still standing, though some people think its recent “restoration” was more of a reconstruction), the Samoset in Rockland, Maine (1902-1972), and the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire (built in 1902 and still majestically and miraculously intact).

The New Ocean House, Oceanside, Wentworth-by-the-Sea, and the Samoset by Walker Evans, and the Mount Washington Hotel at the time of the 1944 Bretton Woods International Economic Conference by Alfred Steiglitz, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Of all these American castles it is the Wentworth with which I had the closest connection:  I grew up nearby and actually attended my senior prom at what was then almost a relic.  The building experienced a conspicuous decline in the later 1980s and 1990s, becoming the focus of the national preservationist movement, before it was rescued and rebuilt after 2000.  It has lost its hyphens and become the Marriott Wentworth by the Sea.

The Wentworth in 2000 and today; the BEST book for the architecture and culture of the grand resort hotels of coastal New England:  Bryant Tolles’ Summer by the Seaside.  The Architecture of New England Coastal Resort Hotels, 1820-1950 (2008)

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