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)

7 responses to “Clapboard Castles

  • michellenmoon

    Thank you for the post; I’m a grand-hotel junkie as well. Though it’s not north of Boston, another impressive survivor of the era is the Mohonk Mountain House in New York State.

    Also worth mentioning is the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island in the Isles of Shoals. It’s no longer a hotel in the usual sense – it’s used exclusively to house conferences and retreats at the Star Island Conference Center – but it is probably the best-preserved Victorian hotel I’ve ever been inside, having had very little modernizing done. Its check-in desk, grand veranda overlooking a lush lawn and sea view, formal front and side parlors, turrets, long hallways and simple rooms – without TV or private bathrooms and with one light bulb or a lamp for electricity – provide as close a simulation as I think it’s possible to get of what a 19th-century seaside hotel guest experience was like.

    I lived in Portsmouth until recently, and the Wentworth, though still every bit as striking from the outside and still a “grand hotel” in feel, was definitely thoroughly rebuilt. The interior today is that of any resort or business hotel, with unfortunately little historic fabric remaining. Given the almost complete lack of safety standards in construction during the grand-hotel days, and the contemporary demand for amenities like hot running water and electricity in all rooms, I think this was somewhat unavoidable. Even so, I would rather see a structure like this survive at least in intent than see another design built in its place.

    • daseger

      Thanks so much for your substantive reply, Michelle–I do agree with you about the Wentworth and I’ve seen the outside of the Star Island hotel but not the interior–it’s on my list of things to do this summer.

  • ceciliag

    wow.. I am always so grateful when these stunning pieces of work are rescued.. we just cannot help the sadness when we think of the sweeping grandeur of these magnificent buildings being claimed by flame .. lovely post! c

  • thesalemgarden

    I have a great affection for grand old hotels. I grew living near and working in similar places in the Pocono Mountains. Some are still open and in beautiful condition and a few are just memories. I’ll have to plan a trip to see the Wentworth. Great post!!

  • The Down East Dilettante

    My admittedly petty irritation with Mr. Tolles aside —I spent half an hour answering questions and aiming him to photographs of our local summer hotel when he was writing the book, and it was the only time I’ve ever failed to be acknowledged for such—I like the book.

    I remember the Poland Springs House—such a breathtaking sight to the architecture mad little boy I then was—it was a personal loss when it burned—as was the loss of its grand doppelganger in Rockland, the Samoset.

    One of the best impromptu weekends of my life was spent at the Wentworth in its last days as an old fashioned hotel. The standards in the columned dining room were still white glove, even at breakfast. There are still a few around—drinks just a few evenings ago at the Asticou Inn at Northeast Harbor was a nice break in a horrible day.

    • daseger

      Well, DD, if I had known that Tolles was not properly appreciative of you I would never have given him this plug! Can’t wait for YOUR book.

  • nelsondionne

    Salem was a pioneer in providing seaside grand hotel. accommodations. . The Lowell Island House began providing summer island vacations to Lowell residents circa 1850. They arrived on the newly built Salem & Lowell Railroad, switching over to a boat at Phillips Wharf, the end of the line. Cat Island, renamed Lowell Island ( now Children’s Island) provided island vacations until `1875. The facility was closed & auctioned off.

    Bakers Island provided island vacations until it burnt in 1905. It was owned by Dr. Morse, and was not rebuilt. Much more could be written on either hotel.

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