Posted by Jaci Conry, reprinted from a Boston Globe Article on Dec 17, 2017

Years ago, the first time I approached the kingly, red-roofed Omni Mount Washington Resort (commonly called the Mount Washington Hotel), I was awestruck. Majestically perched on a verdant pasture parallel to the Presidential Mountain Range in view of Mount Washington, the Spanish Renaissance Revival style hotel opened in 1902. It’s a place entirely of another era. It was a marvel to me that day and every time I’ve gone back since that the structure still stands proud.

While the Mount Washington is the last vestige of a bygone era, there was a period when grand hotels were prevalent in the White Mountains.

During the mid-1800s, the peaks and valleys of northern New Hampshire began to lure wealthy travelers in search of cooler summer weather. As railroad lines to the region were constructed, an infusion of grand hotels sprouted up in the area. At one point, regular passenger service to Breton Woods, the original name of the geographic area at the base of Mount Washington (the highest peak in the Northern United States), included 35 to 55 trains a day.

By the turn of the 20th century, there were nearly two-dozen grand hotels in the White Mountains. The last such hotel built was the Mount Washington Hotel, sprawled upon 10,000 acres, by far the grandest of them all.

The driving force behind the hotel was Joseph Stickney, a native New Englander who made his fortune as a coal broker. In 1900, Stickney set about creating a grand palazzo equipped with every imaginable elegance and convenience. Charles Alling Gifford, an obscure New York architect, drafted plans for the Y-shaped structure, which had an innovative steel infrastructure and two eight-sided five-story towers to break up the horizontal lines of the building.

It cost $1.25 million (nearly $50 million by today’s standards) to design and build what was then, and still is, the largest primarily wooden structure in New England.

 

More than 250 Italian workers were imported to work on the project, many of them skilled artisans. Today, their meticulous work still impresses: vibrant Tiffany stained glass windows gleam; elaborate carved plaster motifs adorn the octagonal-shaped main dining room with a bit of whimsy.

The hotel had 300 guest rooms, more than 1,000 windows, 5,000 electric lights, shiny brass hardware and oversize brass doorknobs that became a Mount Washington Hotel trademark. Rooms cost $20 per night, four times the going rate at the region’s other grand hotels, and each one had a private bathroom — an immense luxury for the era — and two kinds of window shades as well as lace curtains to help darken the room against the sun. The place had a complex plumbing and heating system, an on-site power plant, a telephone company, post office, and a state-of-the-art fire suppression system.

The crowning element of the hotel continues to be the 900-foot-long wraparound veranda. “Six laps around the porch equals a mile,” says the hotel marketing director Craig Clemmer on my recent visit. Furnished with wicker sofas and chairs fitted with signature red cushions, the veranda is the spot to observe the majestic landscape and the resort’s harmonious activity. On the back veranda there are sweeping views of the mountains, an 18-hole Donald Ross designed golf course, and gravel pathways that lead to hiking trails. There’s an old wooden footbridge traversing a running brook and always, children rolling and laughing around the slopping lawn. Adults of all ages stretch out on Adirondack chairs, smiling as they enjoy ice teas or midafternoon cocktails. Absorbing the setting, one simply cannot help but feel relaxed.

During the hotel’s heyday, guests arrived in July and stayed for a month or two. “They wanted their families in an environment where everything was cleaner, fresher, and cooler,” says Clemmer. “It was about relaxing. There was a lot of napping. Much of the experience revolved around dining,” says Clemmer. “Guests changed three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was about seeing and being seen.”

 

With 23-foot-high ceilings and more than a dozen columns, the lobby was so cavernous that it was originally called The Assembly Hall. Dominated by a large fieldstone fireplace and anchored by the 19th century grandfather clock that has been in the same spot since the hotel first opened, today the space is the same as it was back then — though the wooden chairs have been replaced with comfortable upholstered furniture.

Joseph Stickney passed away a year after the hotel opened. His younger wife, Caroline Stickney, however, made sure the place operated according to his wishes, returning every summer for the next 30 years. As the lore goes, she would stand behind a thin curtain on a mezzanine and watch the guests come down the main stairway to dinner. “If anyone was dressed better than her, she’d change her outfit before heading to the dining room,” says Clemmer.

Caroline later married a French prince, earning her the title of “The Princess” around the hotel. Her private quarters at the hotel included her ornate, hand-carved, canopied maple bed. Each year, the bed was shipped back and forth between Paris and Bretton Woods. It’s now located in the third-floor Princess Suite.

Deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1986, the hotel has persevered during lean times and a succession of owners, while gradually, the other hotels in the area shuttered.

As railway travel subsided, fewer and fewer guests made the trek to the hotel for the season. It suffered financial setbacks and maintenance of the gargantuan structure was difficult: parts of the place fell into disrepair. The hotel shuttered during World War II, though the closure was short-lived. It reopened in 1944 at the behest of the US government.

Government officials designated the hotel as the site of the Breton Woods Monetary Conference, an international gathering of more than 700 financial delegates from 44 countries. The government poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into reviving the hotel. In haste, some precious original furnishings were discarded and laborers were instructed to paint “everything that was nailed down white,” says Clemmer. “Gorgeous mahogany doors were painted over — even the trademark brass fixtures.” (In the ensuing decades, those details would be revived.)

At Caroline Stickney’s blond wood, round dining table, seated upon her gilded chairs, delegates established the World Bank and set the American dollar as the gold standard. Today, visitors can envision this part of history in the Gold Room, where mementos from the event are displayed.

The hotel has been a four-season resort since 1999; the Breton Woods Ski Area across the street is now part of the hotel. For the last several years, Omni Hotels and Resorts has owned the establishment; during the group’s tenure, extensive renovations and expansions have gone into the hotel, though great care has gone into retaining the structure’s original architectural details. Among the improvements was the addition of a 25,000-square-foot spa, which rivals any hotel spa in the Northeast.

On the lower level of the hotel, the granite walled Cave Grille was a lively speakeasy during prohibition, where whiskey was served and gambling occurred into wee morning hours. Babe Ruth was a regular during that time, and Bob Hope performed there in the 1920s. The Cave is now a cocktail bar and is open nightly. The signature drink is the secret recipe Prohibition Punch — with local craft beers on tap and a few appetizers.

More substantial fare is served across the hall at Stickney’s, a steakhouse with indoor and outdoor tables overlooking the mountains. While the cuisine is just as refined as the food served in the main dining room, Stickney’s has a more casual vibe that the main dining room upstairs, where up until a few years ago, men were required to wear dinner jackets.

More than a century has passed since Stickney unveiled his grand palazzo, but guests continue to partake in the pursuits enjoyed by its earliest vacationers: hiking, horseback riding, swimming, and golf. There are indoor and outdoor pools and a tennis pavilion. While today’s guests are more inclined to stay a weekend than an entire month and there are flatscreen TVs, an arcade room, Wi-Fi, zip lines, and canopy tours at the ski resort, the hotel’s original emphasis remains the same: Guests are encouraged to take it slow, connect with landscape, and let the fresh air rejuvenate the soul.

 

The Omni Mount Washington Hotel
310 Mount Washington Hotel Road
Bretton Woods, New Hampshire
800-843-664
www.omnihotels.com/mountwashington

By Jaci Conry, Globe Correspondent,  May 28, 2017

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