Grand hotels of the past… and present
Venues that helped shape the Cape and Islands as a vacation destination
The peninsula of Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have long served as sanctuaries of rest and relaxation for those seeking escape from the heat of the cities and the pressures of everyday life. For instance, in the 19th century the town of Sandwich and its surrounding area attracted Daniel Webster to vacation here. President Grover Cleveland and stage actor Joseph Jefferson, who were fishing buddies, each have an island named for them in Mashpee’s Wakeby Pond as evidence of their visits to the area. Though Cleveland and Jefferson had summer homes in Bourne, Webster was known to frequent the Fessenden Tavern in Sandwich.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, local taverns and inns provided a convenient respite for travelers. These establishments were typically situated along the stagecoach routes from town to town, and from village to village. As the area became a vacation destination, grand hotels were built to accommodate the growing number of visitors. Some of those hotels still exist today, while others have fallen away to the pages of history.
As one example, the Quissett Harbor House was a popular spot in Falmouth even though it was not a luxurious hotel. Built in the early 19th century, it was first a private home, known as the Jenkins House, which in the 1870s was connected to a nearby farmhouse, the Hammond House, to produce a hostelry.
In its early years the place had a somewhat discreditable reputation, but in 1881 management changed, as did the hotel’s reputation to a more family oriented resort. It presented a casual atmosphere with somewhat Spartan conditions, such as simple room furniture, limited running water, only a few toilets, no bathtubs, and a front desk service which encouraged guests to retrieve their own key and mail.
With the coming of motels and summer cottages during the 20th century, the Quissett Harbor House saw its popularity wane, and by the mid-1970s it closed. The buildings have been preserved by the Quissett Harbor Land Trust.
In contrast, the luxurious Hotel Belmont, which opened in 1894 along Nantucket Sound at the Dennis-Harwich line, boasted the best of everything to satisfy its clientele. An advertisement in the Harwich Independent newspaper on June 26 of that inaugural year announced: “‘The Belmont’ at West Harwich-by-the-sea (South Shore of Cape Cod, Mass.) Will open for the season on July 1, 1894. A model summer hotel, with all modern conveniences and every provision for the comfort and enjoyment of guests, including commodious bathrooms, with hot and cold water, electric bells, excellent sea bathing, boating, fishing…” The Belmont also offered an on-site bowling alley.
That first summer was a huge success, with the July 17 issue of the newspaper reporting, “Hotel Belmont is filled to overflowing, and guests are turned away daily.” In fact, in order to accommodate members of the visiting Cape Cod Commercial Traveler’s Association, many were lodged in nearby private homes.
A fire in the 1970s damaged the hotel, which led to its demolition. Today, the Belmont condominium complex rises in the location where the resort once stood.
Another popular resort was the Southward Inn, which sat at the head of Town Cove in Orleans. The February 3, 1919 Barnstable Patriot reported that Mr. George Southward had moved into the former Newcomb Lodge. He then changed the identity of that Route 28 location to the Southward Inn, and transformed it into a successful resort.
Southward’s tenure as innkeeper ran until 1925, as the March 4 Harwich Independent announced the sale of the inn to Camille Remillard of Oneida, N.Y. She picked up where Southward had left off, as the newspapers of that era were sprinkled with mentions of local groups entertaining at the Orleans venue.
For instance, in January 1929 the Cape Cod Past Grands Association (Odd Fellowship) held their annual meeting at the inn. In July of that year, Zurick & D. E. Timmerman Insurance Companies of Boston treated its clerical staff to a fun-filled weekend of swimming and sightseeing. And two weeks before the Stock Market Crash in October, the Orleans Women’s Club held their annual President’s luncheon at the inn, attended by 65 club members from across the Cape as well as the president of Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Interestingly, Southward bought back the inn from Remillard in 1932, reselling it a few years later. In the 1950s, Southward Inn was known for its dining room, dance floor and entertainment, including jazz. A postcard from that era touted the “finest in food, lodging and entertainment” and listed the inn’s many amenities, including its Colonial Room, lounge, piano bar, patio bar, Carriage Room bar, Fisherman’s bar, Barn terrace, grille, and lobster pool.
The Southward Inn saw ownership changes over the decades leading up to its eventual closure in the 1970s. Today, a bank stands where vacationers dined and danced.
Just down the coast in the neighboring town of Chatham, overlooking Chatham Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, is the elegant Chatham Bars Inn. Opened in 1914 as a hunting lodge for the wealthy, it soon became a sought-after getaway for those looking to enjoy a top-notch vacation by the ocean. All the modern conveniences were provided, as well as unique extras such as fresh and salt water baths, fresh vegetables and dairy from its own nearby farm, and a private pier which provided clientele with easy access to the outer beach.
Like the Belmont, the Chatham Bars Inn was so successful during its first year that it, too, was forced to turn folks away. The Independent reported on August 19, “People from all over the country are seeking summer hospitality at this magnificently-conducted hotel.”
That summer, the newspaper also reported on visits made by locals to the resort, including 60 folks from South Chatham who “availed themselves of the opportunity to visit at the informal opening of the Chatham Bars Inn.” The article raved about how impressed the locals were at “the efficient manner in which they were all treated.” More than one hundred years later, the inn continues to impress.
On Martha’s Vineyard in 1880, the community of Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) split from its parent town of Edgartown to become incorporated as an independent township. Around that same time, the Wesley House was opened—named, it is believed, for Methodist founder John Wesley—to become one of a number of hotels in Cottage City catering to summer religious camp meeting attendees. During those years, a resident population of roughly 600 people saw that number grow to tens of thousands of visitors looking to participate in meetings or relax by the shore.
The Wesley’s original owner attempted to burn the place down in 1894 to collect on insurance. At that time, there was a rash of suspicious fires in Cottage City that destroyed, among other buildings, the popular Sea View Hotel and the Highland House. Surviving the fire, the Wesley House went on to witness a number of changes over the years, including the installation of electricity. As the popularity of the religious meetings waned seaside tourism took its place, shifting the hotel’s emphasis to its harbor views.
A century later, now called Summercamp, the Oak Bluffs resort maintains the building’s classic architecture and waterfront persona, while its name remembers the local camp meeting history.
Across the waves, on the island of Nantucket, is the suitably named Nantucket Hotel & Resort located at Brant Point. It was originally opened in 1891 as the Point Breeze Hotel—a luxury resort designed to accommodate a wealthy clientele who enjoyed its many amenities, including telephones, indoor plumbing, billiards, smoking rooms, a brace of dining rooms, and, in the early years of the 20th century, an in-house orchestra. Many of its 40 rooms provided water views.
The Point Breeze met with financial difficulties early on, and saw a number of ownership changes. Just after the turn of the 20th century, under new management, an adjoining three-story structure was built, offering private suites and baths and an entertainment hall. An early morning fire in 1925 did extensive damage to both buildings. Although the Point Breeze was rebuilt and reopened the following year, the Great Depression brought further woes, and in 1933 the bank foreclosed on its loan.
After a few years of inactivity, the Point Breeze was once again sold and this time renamed the Gordon Folger Hotel, or simply the Folger Hotel. Today it is the Nantucket Hotel & Resort, updated and yet maintaining it historic splendor—and in early 2018 it was named Top Hotel in the United States and No. 7 worldwide by Trip Advisor.
No doubt, as we traverse the 21st century, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket will remain sought-after destinations for folks seeking a seaside getaway. And local resorts will continue to provide for their comfort and enjoyment.