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Scituate’s Cliff Hotel gets a biography

The Bamboo Lounge at the Cliff Hotel in Scituate in the early 1960s.

rudy mitchell

The Bamboo Lounge at the Cliff Hotel in Scituate in the early 1960s.

People who have been in Scituate long enough can remember the Cliff Hotel in all its glory, a gathering spot for the rich and famous that stood on the edge of Minot Beach.

Those less familiar with the hotel remember only the fire, which on a spring day in 1974 destroyed the historic building and everything within it.

Rudy Mitchell

The family of Aram Brazilian Jr., who owned the hotel, with Boston Bruin Bobby Orr during a party around 1970.

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Yet for Scituate residents Pam McCallum and Nancy Murray Young, the memory of the hotel is less about its rich beginnings and untimely demise, and more about the people who stayed and worked within its rooms.

Those stories have become the fodder for a book the duo is writing about the hotel, a project that has slowly transformed into an homage to family and the past.

“[To] write about something that has so much significance to so many people, yet is a part of my personal narrative as well — I don’t think I realized how exciting it would be, or how curious I would become,” Young said. “It’s almost cathartic.”

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Young, who is a freelance writer and a columnist for the Scituate Mariner, lived down the street from the hotel for most of her childhood, and can recall the sweet summer days of a youth spent waiting for celebrities in the hotel lobby, or working as a housekeeper to earn some cash.

The memory of the four-story, white building stands out in her mind as it did on the cliff of Minot, the wraparound porch emblematic of New England architecture, the backyard pool a unique addition to the neighborhood.

The hotel, built in 1899, had notable guests over the years, including hockey star Bobby Orr; actors Maurice Chevalier, Betsy Palmer, and Zsa Zsa Gabor; and politician Tip O’Neill. Some came for the South Shore Music Circus, others to enjoy the hotel’s glamor, and even more just to relax on the Scituate coast.

And that doesn’t begin to include the locals who used the hotel to host proms, graduation parties, and community gatherings.

With so many memories at Young’s fingertips, it wasn’t a difficult decision when McCallum asked her to write the book.

McCallum, a publisher by trade, had been doing research for the book for years.

“My father always loved the Cliff Hotel. He passed away a few years ago with Alzheimer’s, so . . . I thought I would do this in memory of my father,” she said. “The more I got into it — and I love the project — I was like, I need somebody to help me with the writing. So I called Nancy.”

The two set out to interview as many people as they could, posting to community Facebook pages, and spreading the word through local connections.

Since then, there has been no shortage of information.

“Whenever you mention the Cliff Hotel, people say, ‘I had my prom there; I met my husband there; I was there the night of the fire.’ Whenever you mention it, someone has something to say about it,” McCallum said. “And we’re getting more and more people to come out from different generations.”

The pair has even found Aram Brazilian Jr., whose family owned the hotel for almost 30 years and sold it a few years before the fire. Most of the history of the building is coming from the family, Young said.

Rudy Mitchell

The patio in the front of the hotel in the early 1960s.

And although the duo plan to have the book finished by October, and hope to have it published by December, they still have a lot of work to do.

In addition to the 15 to 20 interviews in the book, the authors hope to talk to the Scituate Fire Department to nail down the exact cause of the fire.

Legend has it that on Memorial Day weekend in 1974, one of the new owners called all of the employees to tell them he was opening the inn the next morning. As soon as he got off the phone, he turned on the gas and walked out.

“If the story is true, we suspect that it was two men from Hingham’’ who owned it at the time, McCallum said. “They bought the hotel and must have had some vision for it, but when they got into the process, they discovered it was so much more than they could [handle].”

Both McCallum and Young were out of town when the building caught fire; however, the discovery of the building’s destruction was shocking to both when they returned.

“It really was [devastating]. It was more than a fire. It symbolized the end of something,” Young said. “It’s not a reluctance to change or to progress, but there are just these places that have such memories and are so much a part of the fabric of the community. To have them no longer there was unthinkable.”

And although the fire will only play a small part in the book, for many in Scituate, it was what defined the hotel.

David Ball, of the Scituate Historical Society, remembers the day distinctly.

“The thing I remember mostly was the fire,” he said. “It was a very large building, made out of wood. Once it got going, there was no stopping it.”

Ball said he stood nearby as singed shingles floated down from the sky, and watched as the entire building collapsed in on itself in flames.

The massive scale of that destruction, and the part the hotel played in many the local residents’ lives, will help the book be successful, Ball said.

“Especially the people who have been in town quite a while, they will find it fascinating. [Nancy] has some great photography and pictures; she talked to the sons of the [former] owner. It will be a great book,” he said.

According to Peg Patten, owner of the Front Street Book Shop, books about Scituate history are popular. One historical book, “Scituate — Images of America,” has sold 13 copies at her store since April, almost as many as “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“The market is people who live here, but it’s also strongly the people that visit here,” Patten said. “This is a very traditional, old harbor town, and people and families go back generations. And they have these stories and they like hearing the stories.”

Regardless of whether the book is popular, the process has been a rewarding one, the authors said.

“It’s given me a chance to meet people in Scituate who have been here forever that I didn’t even know,” McCallum said.

And perhaps even more important, the project will preserve a part of Scituate’s past.

“We want to make sure it’s not forgotten,” Young said.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.
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