Mount Washington"> clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Extraordinary History of 1902's Mount Washington Hotel ... and the 'Poor Fool' Who Built It

Postcard image courtesy of <a href="">Mount Washington</a>
Postcard image courtesy of Mount Washington

On a late July day in 1902, at a mega-estate in New Hampshire's Bretton Woods, entrepreneur Joseph Stickney stood before the crowd and proclaimed: "Look at me, gentlemen, for I am the poor fool who built all this!" And "poor fool" is about right: Stickney, a Robber Baron-era businessman who made his riches as a coal broker, opened his state-of-the-art hotel "at the end of an era," according to Craig Clemmer, a director (and unofficial historian) at Mount Washington Hotel. Mount Washington, unparalleled in its newfangled architecture and amenities, was the last and most exorbitant of the area's grand hotels. Though the hotel was endangered shortly after its opening, Mount Washington has managed to survive—more than 100 years, half a dozen owners, one grandstand post-war meeting of diplomats, $80M in restorations, and one ghost hunt later.

In 1881, Stickney and his business partner John Conyngham bought up the nearby Mount Pleasant Hotel, a typical player in the area's "grand hotel" game. Like its 20 grand hotel peers, Mount Pleasant started as a farm and rooming house, but as it became voguish for rich New Yorkers to take refuge in the White Mountains in the summer, it grew to accommodate visitors, who poured out of some 35 trains a day. Clemmer calls the lives of New Hampshire's first grand hotels "that quintessential American story," one of organic development and measured adjustments of demand and supply.

The Mount Washington Hotel, though, might be "that quintessential Greek tragedy." After about 20 years succeeding as proprietor of Mount Pleasant—a period wherein he "refurbished the property and added some turrets and flags and made it more ostentatious," Clemmer says—our hero, Mr. Stickney, got bolder. In those decades he married a pretty 25-year-old (he himself was 52 on his wedding day) named Carolyn Foster, who he met at a dance down the road from Mount Pleasant. A driven man, with money to burn and strong emotional attachments to the area, Stickney decided to build the grandest of the grand hotels, going full-stop luxury from the foundations up, a rarity among the resort's rivals, which all boasted humble beginnings.

Stickney brought in 250 Italian stone masons for the job. Guided by architect Charles Alling Gifford, in two years Stickney's team crafted a Renaissance Revival estate built for a generation of American kings: there was a bathroom with hot and cold running water for each room (for context, there was 1 bathroom for every 50 guestrooms at Mount Pleasant), fire-suppressive architectural techniques that were "unheard of" in 1902, hand plaster work, and tiffany glass windows. A "little company from New Jersey," Clemmer deadpans, provided electricity throughout, and the founder of said company, a guy named Thomas Edison, turned the lights on for the first time at the opening ceremony. Stickney "really wanted people that he did business with to be able to leave New York and not be wanting for any creature comfort," Clemmer says. "It was really the place to see and be seen." It all cost $1.7M, or something like $47.5M in 2014 dollars, to build.

Of course, our hero-cum-"damn fool" died within a year after opening.

Photo courtesy of Mount Washington

But c'est la vie; his legacy lived on. It was the early 1900s, and trains unloading the families of the country's wealthiest people still came 35 to 50 times a day—"so often you'd hardly even notice it," Clemmer quips—dumping wives and children for the entire season. "They wanted their families in an environment where everything was cleaner, fresher, and cooler," Clemmer says. "They wanted them away from the yellow fever and cholera in the cities."

The pastimes here were utter turn-of-the-century: horseback riding, hiking, and golfing. They would "work on their watercolors," Clemmer says, "And they'd have meals in a restaurant three times a day, changing clothes four times a day."

Postcard images courtesy of Mount Washington

The reason for Mount Washington's ultimate fall from grace is multifarious: some of the blame must go to Prohibition and the Great Depression, which slashed the hospitality industry across the country. Progressivism and the advent of the income tax, surely, must have had some role in trimming the lifestyle Mount Washington was built to accommodate. Still, Clemmer blames Henry Ford. The affordable automobile and modern roads made going up to New Hampshire easier, making the scene less exclusive. "That's when it really started to wane," Clemmer says.

Of course, Carolyn Stickney, our hero's young widow and the spring half of their May-December romance, stayed every summer at the hotel she now owned. Hopelessly rich (she got Stickney's cash and then fell in love and married a French prince), Carolyn became a fixture at the hotel, marked for her princess-dom and eccentricities. She only ever slept in her bed (a travel set she could take with her back to the south of France, where she spent her winters) and surrounded by her own night furniture. Despite the fact that she reserved a single-person table at the restaurant every evening, she kept a personal dining table in her suite. Her original bedroom furniture remains in her room, number 314; her dining table sits in the hotel's Gold Room.

Carolyn was and is clearly beloved by those that ran Mount Washington, and it seems her odd behaviors only endear her more to the modern-day staff. For instance, she did not like automobiles, Clemmer claims, and would only allow horse-and-carriage to come up to the entrance of the hotel. Still, she commissioned a 100-stall "car barn" and transformed what were once the Stickneys' private quarters into a place for the chauffeurs to stay.

The hotel was already well on the decline by the time Carolyn died in 1936. World War II was more than it could stand, and it closed in 1942.

If WWII was the hammer that nailed closed the hotel's coffin, it was also the crowbar that creaked it back open. In 1944, a Boston syndicate bought the property for roughly $450K and, that same year, at the war's conclusion, the world's economic leaders met at Mount Washington to hash out the international money situation, a meeting particularly important considering the role harsh reparations from the first world war played in priming Europe for the second. Here, the Bretton Woods Monetary Conference established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Diplomats from 44 countries set the price of gold to $35 an ounce, essentially establishing the U.S. dollar as the spine of global exchange. Most relevantly, however, the conference transfused some $300K into the hotel's coffers, plus $18 a head for the entirety of the 19-day conference.

Why choose Mount Washington for such a big-deal conference? The answer, Clemmer says, is trifold: (1) It's easy to get to from Boston, Montreal, and New York. (2) Set in a teardrop of land surrounded by 800,000 acres of forest and the "beautiful granite curtain" of New Hampshire's White Mountains, the place is easily defendable. "Even to this day you can put a road stop on either end of Route 302 and block off all access of the hotel," Clemmer says. (3) Being up north meant diplomats didn't have to deal with the muggy weather seen elsewhere on the east coast. (The entire fascinating low-down on the conference, at right.)

Since the conference concluded, the hotel has undergone an estimated $80M in renovations and expansions. It became a National Historic Landmark in '86 and opened for its first winter in 1999, a shift that required millions of dollars in structural overhauls. (To name a few of the changes, the windows had to be insulated and the roof, previously a metal one that produced fun 600-pound icicles in the winter months, needed to be replaced.) In 2009, Mount Washington got a 50,000-square-foot bonus complex, apportioned as a spa and conference center.

Illustration courtesy of Mount Washington

Still, much of the original hotel's spirit remains—the literal spirit if you happen to ask the producers of Ghost Hunters, who, in 2008, facilitated a search for Carolyn's Stickney's ghost. Spectre sightings or no, Mount Washington's room 314, the "Princess Suite," named after Carolyn, is a popular choice, as guests get to stay in her original four-poster. Carolyn's dining table, the one where diplomats later congregated to sign the post-war economic agreements, is still prominently featured in the Gold Room.

And, of course, every dinner service in the hotel's restaurant still allows for a table set (in the hotel's original china) for one—just in case she should stop by.

· Mount Washington Resort [official site]
· All Hotels Week 2014 posts [Curbed National]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]