NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — Marty Milner stood in the middle of Water Street, covered in sweat and soot, looking at what was left of the Harborside Inn and thinking of his grandparents, John and Margaret DiTraglia.
The DiTraglias once owned the Victorian-era property, which welcomed guests on Block Island for more than 140 years, until it was ravaged by fire on Aug. 18. No one was hurt in the blaze, but the property was deemed a “total loss” by the state fire marshal’s office. It’s slated to be demolished the week of Sept. 11. And when it goes, nearly a century and a half of stories will go with it.
“There’s a lot of history in that building,” said Milner. “A lot of that history is kind of iffy to repeat. But it happened.”
When the hotel is torn down, some locals say a small piece of Block Island’s history will be lost. Milner, who helps manage the property for the local company that now owns and operates the inn, is steadfast on rebuilding, and making it a replica of the original. But construction could take years.
The hotel opened in 1879 as The Pequot House, part of a wave of hotels that were established as the island became a tourist hot spot. An ad in the Hartford Courant touted its amenities: “less than one hundred feet from the ocean, overlooking the harbor; fine surf for bathing; good sailing and fishing.” Rooms cost $2 a night.
The Pequot House was renamed the Waukesha in 1913, and was called The Royal Hotel in 1920. By then, the number of hotels on the island dwindled due to economic uncertainty, a world war, and fires that destroyed various properties. Larger, more luxurious hotels shuttered or were hardly used, but The Royal Hotel remained open by charging more affordable rates — and possibly because of its colorful reputation.
From the late 1950s through the 1970s, longtime Block Island residents told the Globe, The Royal Hotel was known as a place where prostitution was more than tolerated and raucous parties lasted through the night. Some say it was a popular brothel. Others say it was haunted.
“That’s all accurate,” said Milner, who wasn’t alive when his grandparents owned the hotel but said he vividly remembers stories they told him over the years. His grandmother, Margaret “Rita” DiTraglia, died in May. “I won’t name names, but there are a lot of people on this island today who are descendants of the people who were prostitutes in my grandparents’ establishment,” he told the Globe. “They’ve built lives out here, and they’re staple people in our community.”
“Like it or not, that is part of our history,” he added.
Ben Hruska, the collections administrator at the Block Island Historical Society, said former Royal Hotel employees have told stories about the women who worked in the alleged brothel. Most islanders have heard the rumors, and he called the stories a forgotten or unknown piece of Block Island’s history. But traces of it are still discoverable if you search through the town’s archives.
In a 2011 Block Island Times column, writer Robert M. Downie hinted at the hotel’s past.
“The Royal’s reign over Water Street lasted for six well-lubricated decades, notably as a splendid place to drink for salt-of-the-earth patrons who ... were ‘second-class people,’” he wrote. “Of course, for that purpose, the Royal was a first-class success.”
An advertisement in the Block Island Hooter newspaper on July 1, 1968, called for topless waitresses to work at the Royal. Less than two weeks later, on July 10, another ad noted the hotel had received plenty of applications. “Please, no more topless waitresses,” it read.
Julie Natalizia, who is now general manager at The National Hotel nearby, remembers her parents telling her to stay away from the Royal. But to this day, she told the Globe, she remembers a contractor named Ray who was there “every single afternoon” for “you know what.”
Visitors also flocked to The Royal for its elaborate parties, which featured lots of alcohol and plenty of characters.
Muriel “Sam” Clark worked as a bartender and manager at The Royal in the summers during its heyday. In 2018, about a year before she died, she gave an interview for the Block Island Historical Society’s oral history project.
The Royal was “like a saloon,” she said in the recording. “People would come in and drink, drink, drink.... We never asked, ‘Do you want a drink?’ We just put the drink down.”
She recalled being hired by the owner because of her “hot pants” — and being fired by his wife soon after. But Clark just kept showing up for her shift, she said, and ended up working there for years.
Her granddaughter, Zena Clark, told the Globe that she remembers visiting her grandmother at The Royal Hotel in the early 1970s. She was only about 4 years old, and while the smoke-filled room felt normal to her then, “Looking back, [it] was not really a place you want to bring a child.”
Clark said she asked her grandmother countless times about the rumors of The Royal Hotel’s scandalous past.
“She definitely denied knowing any of that,” said Clark. “But she was the kind of woman who would tell the same story a little differently the next time. It was always a little modified, so it’s hard to say what she knew.”
Block Island has a party reputation now, but, “What goes on today has nothing on what it was like during those decades,” said Hruska of the Block Island Historical Society. “I’ve heard of people literally hanging from the rafters at bars during that time.... And that’s not a metaphor.”
Cindy Kelly, who lives on Block Island, said she was hired as a cocktail waitress at The Royal in 1975 when she was underage. But it didn’t last long. “I was too innocent to deal with the raucous behavior of the clientele,” she wrote in a comment on a recent Facebook post about the hotel’s bar, the Orchid Lounge.
The lounge was dark, with gaudy painted-flower wallpaper and heavy curtains. Terry Mooney said he remembered trying to sneak in as a teenager to peek at the women. He said he was politely escorted out each time.
Milner, the grandson of former owners, said his grandmother’s office was right next to the Orchid Lounge, and she could look through a peephole and see what was going on at the bar.
“Whenever she saw people causing problems, she’d come out there and bust it up. Nobody talked back to her,” he said. Sometimes, patrons would slap beer labels over the peephole. “They thought it was funny to see how long it took her to come out, rip the label off, and then yell at everyone.”
She didn’t cut guests any slack, either. “One of her ladies hadn’t paid for her room when my grandmother told me she found the woman passed out in the lobby, sleeping with a bunch of money hanging out of her bra,” Milner said. “My grandmother pulled all of that money out, counted out the cash she was owed, and stuffed it right back into that woman’s bra.”
The Royal Hotel was more than just a party place. For some, it was literally a haven.
When Fidel Castro took over as prime minister of Cuba in 1959, “A ton of Cuban men all with the last name Jones” arrived on Block Island and stayed at The Royal Hotel, Hruska recalled.
The DiTraglias sold The Royal Hotel in 1979, the year before Milner was born. The new owners, Alan and Sharon Pratt, had just left the corporate world and wanted to rebrand. They changed the name to the Harborside Inn and hired a young man named Chris Sereno to help fix up the property as a manager.
Sereno, who now owns and operates The National Hotel nearby, worked at the Harborside Inn for more than two decades. He remembered that there was carpeting on the walls, and rooms that desperately needed work. “People would check in, go to their rooms, and then instantly come back and say they couldn’t stay there,” he said. “It was very run-down.” He and the Pratts spent the first few years upgrading the rooms, and turned the Harborside Inn into a stately seaside hotel.
“In that first year, we had customers come into the bar and ask, ‘Where’s the carpeted walls, where’s the brothel, where’s the derelicts?’ because there used to be three to five fights a season,” said Sereno.
Simon Bryson, who worked at the Harborside Inn for eight summers, recalled older customers reminiscing about how “wild” the place use to be. They “remembered it as a somewhat of a den of immorality. Others may have said it was fun,” said Bryson, now a lecturer at University Centre Grimsby in the United Kingdom.
In recent years, the most scandalous story among a younger generation is the legend of Room 302, which is allegedly haunted by a woman in a black dress. Some employees also have claimed feeling as though they were being grabbed around the waist while tending the reception desk.
Now, islanders and longtime visitors are mourning that the iconic Harborside Inn is being demolished. “My grandparents are probably rolling over in their graves right now, looking at that building and knowing it has to come down,” he said. “That was their home.”
During a recent renovation, Milner found a large mural hidden behind a wall. His grandmother told him it had been painted by H.D. Wetherbee, a local artist known across the island for trading works of art for room, board, and booze.
“When we rebuild, that’s something I want to make sure is put on full display,” said Milner. “And we will rebuild.”