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Missing European travel? New Hampshire’s grand hotels might be the perfect solution

There are no official, comprehensive lists of the country’s remaining grand hotels, but the Granite State has the largest remaining collection in New England and one of the largest in the country.

The Omni Mount Washington.
The Omni Mount Washington.Jeffrey Newcomer

Elaborate architecture, white glove service, historic moments, unrivaled attention to detail — these are the classic luxuries of a bygone era that travelers eagerly seek out in Europe. These Old World traditions arrived in the United States more than a century ago as grand hotels sprung up around New England. Today, that grandiosity is alive and well in New Hampshire’s grand hotels.

The no-expenses-spared European grand hotel tradition crossed the Atlantic toward the end of the 19th century, offering newly minted leisure travelers an intriguing domestic option. A grand hotel was loosely defined as any property of architectural distinction built from the Gilded Age through the 1920s, with more than 200 rooms and 18 holes of golf.

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The hotels were destinations in and of themselves. They were remarkably large, with lavish shops, gardens, impressive lobbies, haute cuisine, courtyards, and daily traditions like high teas and cocktail hours. These expansive properties offered unique, “frivolous” amenities for the time, like electricity, elevators, and private bathrooms.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains were a preferred getaway for wealthy city dwellers. The fresh mountain air offered a luxurious escape from crowds during periods of viruses and pestilence. At one point, 35 trains arrived per day into the White Mountains to bring guests to their grand hotels.

“At the peak, there were roughly 30 grand hotels in New Hampshire, each accommodating 200 guests or more. Today, there are maybe a handful,” said Bryant Tolles, an architectural historian, retired professor and author of “The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains.”

There are no official, comprehensive lists of the country’s remaining grand hotels, but the Granite State has the largest remaining collection in New England and one of the largest in the country, according to Historic Hotels of America, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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During The Great Depression, many of the grand hotels fell into disrepair or were sold off. Those that remained often experienced tragic, destructive fires, and could not be rebuilt to scale, or had challenges finding investors. Several former grand hotels still exist in a dismantled form. Some are now private residences. One is currently attempting to undergo a full restoration and grand reopening. (The Balsams, which opened in 1866 as the Dix House in Dixville Notch, began as an inn and then swelled to 400 rooms by 1916.) There are still impressive “baby grand hotels” like Eagle Mountain House and The Wentworth Inn in Jackson, N.H., which were never as large as their more famous counterparts but still drew the same crowds every summer.

Somehow, several properties across New Hampshire managed to keep their iconic doors open and their charming traditions alive for over a century. A stay at one of these historic grand hotels transports travelers to the glamour and elegance of days gone by, no long-haul flight required.

Mountain View Grand Resort

Whitefield, N.H.

In 1865, William and Mary Jane Dodge became accidental hoteliers when they hosted some stranded travelers in their farmhouse. Enchanted by the surroundings in Whitefield, N.H., and the Dodges’ hospitality, the guests made plans to return for several weeks the following summer — so in 1866, Mountain View House opened for business. As the years went on, future generations of the Dodge family added additions to the hotel. In 1900, while the property was still a working farm, Mountain View Grand added a golf course designed by Harvard math professor Ralph Barton.

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The hotel attracted some famous guests, including several presidents, writers like Stephen King, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Frost, and celebrities such as all four Marx Brothers, Bette Davis, Neil Armstrong, Babe Ruth, and Norman Rockwell.

Like many grand hotels, Mountain View struggled to fill its grandiose property once travelers transitioned from long summer stays to shorter vacations across four seasons. By 1986, the resort closed. In 2002, after a $20 million restoration, Mountain View House reopened once again as Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa. During the renovation, a crew removed 135 years of wallpaper (2,520,000 square feet of it — or 62 football fields — to be exact), and replaced 38 miles of old mechanical piping, along with 78 miles of 135-year-old cedar siding. Today, the property’s 1,700 acres include a movie theater, game room, croquet lawn, four clay tennis courts, a golf course, and several dining rooms.

Omni Mount Washington Resort,
Omni Mount Washington Resort, Handout

Omni Mount Washington Resort

Bretton Woods, N.H.

The Mount Washington was the last of 22 grand hotels built in the White Mountains. Joseph Stickney, a New Hampshire native and an owner of the Pennsylvania Railroad, enlisted Charles Allen Gifford to build a cutting-edge hotel on 10,000 acres. From the start, The Mount Washington had hot and cold running water in every room, and (critically) a full fire suppression system. What really stood out was its electricity. At that time, even Battery Park in New York City didn’t have electrical lights — so something this far north was extremely cutting edge. In 1902, Thomas Edison himself threw the switch to the hotel’s opulent electrical lighting during a toast in the main dining room. To this day, the hotel has its original Edison electrical works, including 236 scalloped lights around the ballroom (one for each guestroom).

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Mount Washington’s 10,000 remote acres served as the setting for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in 1944, which helped create a world banking system. The Mount Washington was always considered a top-tier grand hotel because of its architecture and amenities, but the property’s wide-open spaces and fresh mountain air drew in crowds equally.

“Yellow fever, cholera, a lack of refrigeration, it all made the White Mountains a respite for families looking to get all the fresh air they could take in,” said Craig Clemmer, director of sales and marketing and resident historian.

“We’ve come full circle back to that real search for nature.”

The grand Wentworth by the Sea.
The grand Wentworth by the Sea.Wentworth by the Sea

Wentworth by the Sea

New Castle, N.H.

When Wentworth by the Sea was built in 1874, grand hotels were abundant. Over the years, the hotel changed size and shape multiple times, but a fire in the early 1900s or so diminished the scale of the resort for good until its eventual closure in the 1970s. The building sat empty for decades until 2003, when it was fully restored to its former grandeur.

Aside from its decadence, Wentworth by the Sea earned a name for itself as an important part of world history. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Portsmouth Peace Treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War, which was quickly in danger of becoming a world war. Because of the grand hotel’s architecture and size, delegates from Russia could stay in one wing while delegates from Japan stayed in the other. Representatives took boats daily to a neutral territory (now the shipyard) to hash out an agreement.

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“The reality is, you can’t replicate a 150-year-old property. Here, you can sleep in a guestroom that was shared by people you read about as a kid,” said general manager Jason Bartlett. You can also ring the same 140-year-old bell at the check-in desk just as Rockefellers and Vanderbilts did years ago.

As with all remaining grand hotels, The Grand Dame of the Sea (as the hotel is known) has been through world wars, multiple financial crashes, various levels of crises, and of course, multiple pandemics — and weathered them all with white glove service.

Hillary Richard can be reached at hillary@hillaryrichard.com.