Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

On Research

A working vacation at grand, old resort hotels

Bryant Tolles visits resorts when he works. You have to if your passion is the architecture and history of tourism at the grand, old resort hotels in New Hampshire's White Mountains and other resort regions of the Northeast.

As director of UD's Museum Studies Program, interim chairperson of the Department of Art Conservation and an associate professor in the departments of History and Art History, Tolles manages to find time to conduct research on these beautiful buildings-the first structures in America that were designed exclusively for the tourist trade.

He's written a book, The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains, A Vanishing Architectural Legacy, to be published in late fall, which is the first to fully explore the architectural, economic and cultural history of these resorts, once situated in one of the nation's most popular locales.

The book has been called a "visual delight and a vastly entertaining social document [that] presents scholarship and detective work of the first order."

From 1875 until the first world war, tourists flocked to New Hampshire's magnificent hotels to leave behind the stresses of urban life. They spent weeks, months and, sometimes, entire summers at the grand hotels- complexes that were self-sufficient, like small cities unto themselves, with their own heating plants, generators and the like, Tolles explains.

Mothers, children, nurses and maids would take the train from New York or Boston and arrive in the White Mountains with steamer trunks filled with clothes and other necessities. Fathers and husbands would commute from the cities on weekends. According to Tolles, hotel carriages and, later, motor cars would whisk guests from the nearby train stations to the hotel front doors, where they were greeted royally. With manicured lawns, elegant gardens and the latest conveniences-electricity, elevators, telephone lines and private baths-the hotels offered their guests only the best.

Golf courses, tennis courts, hiking and carriage trails, bowling, fine dining, an orchestra and an artist-in-residence added to the ambiance, Tolles says. The hotels often trained their own "nines," a baseball team to play teams from other hotels for the entertainment of guests.

Tolles attributes his interest in these grand resorts to being a native New Englander, who spends part of each summer in New Hampshire.

Most of the hotels Tolles studies are now gone, lost to fires or demolished when they became shabby. "Most of them were built entirely of wood and they were put up fast to make a profit. Since they also were located in areas quite remote from fire-fighting equipment, fires were quite a hazard," Tolles explains.

Two that do remain in New Hampshire, he says, are The Balsams in Dixville Notch and the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods. Both are large, ornate structures.

The American vacation experience changed dramatically with the advent of income tax, wars and depression, Tolles says, but nothing changed the tourist industry as radically as did the popularization of the automobile.

"With the automobile, people didn't have to rely on trains to get them to vacation destinations. They could go more places, stay for shorter periods of time and move on to see more," Tolles says. "Suddenly, people had access to many more parts of North America. People had different ways to spend their time and, as a result, much smaller lodging options-motor courts and motels-materialized."

Additionally, the very rich, who had become accustomed to stays at the grand hotels, found the automobile could give them access to their own parcels of vacation land, he says. Thus began the American cottage movement, with families building or purchasing their own vacation homes, though sometimes still relying on the grand hotels for meals and entertainment.

In his next book, Tolles will trace this cottage movement in the White Mountains. At present, he is researching a book on resorts of the Adirondack Mountains, Lake George and Lake Champlain, which provided a vacation experience very different from that of the White Mountains because of the focus on lake recreation.

The architecture of the hotels in the Adirondacks, which were popular from the 1850s until the first decade of this century, reflected the area's rustic traditions, with the extensive use of natural materials, such as furniture and decorative art objects made of unfinished wood, he says. The appeal of the Adirondacks was understandable, Tolles says, given the fishing and hunting opportunities provided by the lakes.

Tolles conducts much of his research in the Morris Library on the campus, and he also conducts research at museums in Boston, New York and Philadelphia and at the American Antiquarian Society, the New Hampshire Historical Society, the Adirondack Museum and other small libraries and archives.

One of the joys of the research, he says, is getting to meet hotel and cottage owners, many of whom are very willing to share company and family histories, records and photographs with him.

Tolles organized and hosted a two-day symposium in 1994 on the grand hotels at The Mount Washington Hotel. As a result, the New Hampshire Historical Society published a special issue of Historical New Hampshire. This fall, he led and narrated weekend bus tours of hotels and hotel sites in the White Mountains for the society and the Smithsonian Institution.

-Beth Thomas