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Hard to believe the Omni Mount Washington Hotel was once on shaky ground

It wasn’t all that long ago that it wasn’t a winter mainstay

The Mount Washington Hotel hasn't been open winters for very long.
The Mount Washington Hotel hasn't been open winters for very long.Allen Lessels for the Boston Globe

The Omni Mount Washington Hotel stands tall as a white, red-roofed grand centerpiece of the winter wonderland that flanks Route 302 — the road that cuts through Crawford Notch to connect Twin Mountain and the likes of Littleton on one side of northern New Hampshire to Glen and then North Conway on the other.

On one side of 302, a sign directs visitors down a mile-long winding road that stretches through fields to the hotel. Its namesake, Mount Washington itself, rises to its tip of 6,288 feet behind the expansive white building.

On the opposite side of the road, back just a few carved ski turns toward Twin Mountain, another sign welcomes all to “Bretton Woods, N.H.’s Largest Ski Area.”

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The Mount Washington Hotel offers majestic views.
The Mount Washington Hotel offers majestic views.Allen Lessels for the Boston Globe (custom credit)/Allen Lessels for the Boston Globe

For all its grandeur, for the way those red roofs stand out against the whites of winter, for its holiday decorations in spacious hallways and wreaths along its wide verandas, for the sleigh rides and cross country ski trails, for the majestic views of the ice and snow-crusted mountain rising in the backyard, something else sticks out to me on snow-season visits to the hotel: It wasn’t all that long ago that there was no Mount Washington Hotel in winter.

It seems a bit silly now.

No Mount Washington in winter? Ha. The very thought.

No lounging in the Rosebrook Bar and toasting to a glorious winter sunset on the Northeast’s tallest peak? No grabbing a shuttle from a Bretton Woods Rosebrook Townhome — long our family’s favorite slopeside destination for a ski vacation in New England — and making your way to The Cave, the hotel’s Prohibition-era hot spot? No admiring the Christmas decorations and welcoming fireplaces in the hotel lobby?

One day we stopped by in early January, and an enthusiastic mom stepped through the hotel doors and exclaimed excitedly to her very young son: “Look! A fireplace bigger than a house.”

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No Mount Washington Hotel in winter? Perish the thought. And imagine this: No Mount Washington Hotel at all.

It’s not that far-fetched.

The old girl was in rough shape physically, and financial times were tough not that long ago. There were no guarantees the Mount Washington Hotel would be around to mark even its 100th birthday in 2002 when it was purchased in 1991 at auction by a small group of local families who said they didn’t want to see the place torn down.

The resurrection began and before too long, plans were in place to winterize the hotel that had for all of its near century of existence been shuttered in the cold months.

At the time, Alice Pearce was the executive director of Ski New Hampshire, an organization that represents most of the state’s alpine and nordic ski areas. She was among a small group of business people invited along for an advance peek at what the hotel would be like in winter by Cathy Bedor, an investor in the property with her husband, Joel.

“She wanted to walk us through and explain what the interior would look like and how it would work,” Pearce says. “It was winter and it was boarded up. It was like being in ‘The Shining’ — with no crazy Jack Nicholson running around. We had to wear winter coats and she walked us through the halls and took us into the main dining room and told us to picture it being beautifully lighted with winter decorations. She did a great job of painting an image in our minds.”

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The terrain at Bretton Woods caters to a wide range of abilities.
The terrain at Bretton Woods caters to a wide range of abilities.Allen Lessels for the Boston Globe

The Bedors and Co. proceeded to turn the ideas and images into reality, and the Mount Washington opened for its first-ever winter season on Thanksgiving Day 1999, just in time for a new millennium.

Improvements and enhancements have continued ever since, and the hotel is now in its 21st winter season. Our kids remember looking across the field at the closed hotel in winter and swearing they could see flicking lights in its windows. Many visitors surely feel it’s been opening its doors in winter for far longer than two decades.

“Never in a million years would most people know it wasn’t open year-round for the entire life of it,” says Pearce, now the executive director of the Ogunquit (Maine) Chamber of Commerce, who compares the grandeur of the Mount Washington to that of the Cliff House in York, Maine, trading one’s ski slopes for the other’s seashores.

Omni Hotels & Resorts has managed The Mount Washington and Bretton Woods for the last decade and purchased the properties just over four years ago.

The hotel neatly mixes the past, present, and future, and to emphasize the latter, major projects are underway on each side of the street.

A Presidential Wing expansion is adding 69 luxury rooms and suites to the spa and convention area that was opened a dozen years ago.

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The hotel neatly mixes the past, present, and future.
The hotel neatly mixes the past, present, and future.Allen Lessels for the Boston Globe

Across the way, in December, New Hampshire’s first eight-passenger gondola began carrying skiers, riders, and guests to the top of Bretton Woods. A massive 16,000-square-foot dining and event venue is taking shape at the top of the gondola and is primed to be open for weddings and other functions by summer.

One of my favorite activities at the hotel is to poke around the hallways and lobby and check out the historic photos on the walls: pictures of the original construction of the building — begun in 1900 for owner Joseph Stickney, a coal and railroad man, the hotel opened July 28, 1902, and was acclaimed as one of the most luxurious of its day; 250 Italian craftsmen who specialized in masonry and woodworking were brought to the site and housed on the grounds during construction — and pictures from the Bretton Woods Caddy Camp that ran each summer from about 1930 to 1970 and was made up of more than 100 boys, ages 10 to 16, largely from Boston.

The Gold Room pays homage to the three-week-long Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference held in the hotel in July 1944 that established the World Bank.

I’m partial to photos from the tennis tournament that was held on the clay courts at the bottom of the hill behind the hotel in 1973 and 1974 and featured Jimmy Connors in his early playing days. That Volvo International Tennis Tournament quickly grew and moved to North Conway and later to Stratton in Vermont and then New Haven.

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Those tennis matches were my first introduction to the hotel, and we’d sit on a grassy knoll to watch the matches and stroll the grounds and rub elbows with Rod Laver and Roy Emerson and other tennis greats.

When it comes to skiing, Bretton Woods has always worked well for us with its terrain that caters to a wide range of abilities and as a place that offers consistent and reliable snowmaking and snow conditions.

Another plus: The mountain is just far enough away (about two hours and 45 minutes from Boston), and itself big and spread out enough, that it doesn’t generally get jammed with folks. It can usually handle a crowd quite well.

Deception Bowl, Bode’s Run, No Regrets, and Granny’s Grit are some of our favorite trails. Many kids — and adults — in our skiing groups got their first taste of tree skiing in the forgiving Rosebrook Glades, and those that desired graduated to trickier spots in the woods scattered around the Woods.

So yes, back before the turn of the century, the future of the Mount Washington Hotel was a bit, well, cloudy.

Chris Ellms, director of ski operations at Bretton Woods, came to the mountain in 1997. Back then the hotel closed on Columbus Day and opened again on Memorial Day weekend.

“When it went into foreclosure and those five families purchased it, it could have gone either way,” Ellms says. “It was a daunting task to get it ready for winter, but it worked.”

The hotel and ski area came under the same ownership during those days as well.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Ellms said. “It’s one special winter-time resort. Now you can look at the hotel and be comfortable it’s going to be there forever.”

Allen Lessels can be reached at lessfam321@gmail.com.