(Second in a series of guest posts by historian, journalist and author, J. Dennis Robinson)
Last week I spoke to an exclusive gathering of New England trial lawyers in the “Garden Room” of Wentworth by the Sea Hotel in New Castle. Usually I’m in the Colonial Room upstairs where developers Ocean Properties managed to preserve the historic stage that I believe dates back to the founding of the hotel in 1874, or at least to the upgrade a few years later by ale tycoon Frank Jones.
I spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution there years ago, and I couldn’t help imagining that Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington had performed on the same spot. The “daughters” gave me an award for patriotism even though I voted for a Democrat. When I spoke to the American Foundry Association in the giant conference room, they presented me with a cast-iron frying pan. I still use it daily. I’ve addressed dentists, car dealers, even architects at WBS. The toughest crowd was a group of travel reporters who go around the planet writing about spas. After my heartfelt sermon on the historical significance of the hotel, the group asked exactly two questions: (1) Have you ever seen a ghost here? And (2) which way to the spa?
It’s been 10 years and 10 books since I cleared off my desk to write Wentworth by the Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel. Ocean Properties was just getting their $26 million renovation underway as I was digging into the research, and the battered remnants of the Victorian hotel still looked like a good place to film a horror movie. In fact, a Hollywood group actually did shoot a scene for the movie “In Dreams” in the wrecked hotel. What happens in the movie is too gross to mention here.
The book has been a big success and is in its fourth or fifth reprinting by publisher Peter E. Randall. But back when I started the work, the whole thing was a giant risky project. WBS had been largely abandoned for 20 years since Jim and Margaret Smith gave up the hotel business to retire in the early 1980s. It deteriorated over time from a white elephant to a bonfire waiting to happen. It got smaller and smaller and more ruined as one owner after another promised to rebuild the old hotel, but merely sold off bits of the surrounding land for costly homes and condos. The marina and the golf course split off. The decorative columns and plaster sculptures crumbled.
Ocean Properties had never done an historic renovation before. Not everyone in the exclusive town of New Castle wanted the hotel rebuilt, and no one knew if the new improved design would catch on with the public.
I know the developers paid the bills and took all the risks, but as the author of the book, I like to think I helped a little. I’m still pleased as punch with the way it came out. But visiting today, what is also clear is how visionary the design by TMS Architects turned out to be. I’m not just gilding the lily here – it’s true. Somehow these guys managed to retain the look and feel of the 19th century resort. They even preserved some of the original building inside the modern one. But the 21st century Wentworth is full-on modern. It is more re-invented than renovated, and yet – to the eye and to the spirit – it feels like a pleasant trip backwards in a time machine.
Almost a decade after the revival, the building is still beautiful and functional. It is again a grand jewel of the seacoast, and when I show first-time visitors my photos of the hotel at its lowest point – heck there were raccoons living in there – they accuse me of making it all up.
So congratulations to the developers for being bold enough to take a chance. Here too is a toast to TMS for making the impossible into the possible. And to all those who don’t yet know the full amazing story of this marvelous seacoast structure – hey come-on, buy the book.
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of books about history. His latest books are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812.