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Golden Age of the Grand Hotels

From “White Mountains of New Hampshire,” published 1912.

In the United States, the hotel first appeared in the 1700s and were expanded versions of a tavern or highway inn. As the railroad made travel more prevalent and business grew, larger and more specialized hotels were built, which had space for dining halls, ballrooms, and recreation.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the earliest travelers began coming to the White Mountains in small but significant numbers. Explorers, writers, scientists and adventurers, drawn to the beauty, grandeur and natural curiosities of the region, pursued scientific, spiritual and aesthetic inquiry as well as outdoor activity. As transportation improved, farmers and merchants settled in the wilderness environment, moving their produce and wares within or through the mountains. By the 1820s, they were joined by ‘a class whose purpose in coming was entirely one of pleasure and recreation.’ These early excursionists were the forerunners of the summer tourists and visitors who would populate the grant resort hotels of the region after the Civil War.

Bryant F. Tolles, Jr. The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains: A Vanishing Architectural Legacy. David R Godine. 1998.

The Evolution of the Hotels

Many of the grand hotels developed piecemeal over time, evolving from humble private residences or small inns and hotels. Over the years, they were continually renovated, expanded, and even rebuilt in order to accommodate changing needs and fashions.

Plymouth’s Pemigewasset House began as a small tavern in 1800. By 1859, the original building had tripled in size, and offered guests a grand dining room and its own railroad depot.

(Click to make larger)

The Balsams Hotel also began as a small summer inn that first opened just after the Civil War. It was later purchased by Henry Hale, who set about converting it into a grand resort hotel by building additions and introducing luxurious amenities. The addition of the Hampshire House in 1918 doubled the hotel’s capacity to 400 guests.

Addition of the Hampshire House, a new fireproof wing at The Balsams Hotel.
Museum of the White Mountains, Barba collection

Unlike many other grand hotels, the Mount Washington Hotel, now known as The Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, was designed and built from its inception to be a grand hotel. Built between 1900 and 1902 in the Spanish Renaissance revival architecture style, 250 Italian craftsmen were brought to Bretton Woods to construct the hotel.

Foundations of new hotel [Mount Washington Hotel] near Mount Pleasant House, White Mountains, N.H. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Experiencing the Grand

The successful models were based on a “pay one price” “American Plan” for room, meals, activities, and amenities, and incorporated excellent business management, effective marketing, outstanding facilities maintenance, and flexible social/recreational programming. 

As insular worlds of their own, the grand hotels sought to offer all the comforts and luxuries that visitors required during their vacation in the mountains. Guests often stayed for weeks or even the entire summer, and so the hotels were furnished with popular indoor amusements and conveniences to keep their guests entertained. Guests enjoyed inviting lobbies, lounges, reading and writing rooms, and music salons, all adorned with rich furnishings and elegant decorations.


Mount Washington Hotel broadside, undated.
Courtesy of Bryant F. Tolles, Jr.

There were also endless opportunities for outdoor sport, relaxation, and entertainment at the grand hotels, which sought to meet their guests’ every need. Guests enjoyed hiking, golf, bowling, baseball, croquet, billiards, fishing, bicycling, horseback riding, polo, boating, archery, and badminton, plus promenades, coaching parades, dances, dinners, and musical performances.

The grand hotels typically operated between May and September. However, new opportunities for outdoor recreation arose in 1926, when the Second Eagle Mountain House in Jackson was equipped with steam heat, enabling the hotel to offer year-round services and opportunities such as cross-country skiing.  

Fishing at The Balsams Hotel. Museum of the White Mountains, Newton collection

The grand hotels each maintained their own livery stables, stagecoaches, and mountain wagons, providing transportation to popular tourist sites, including day trips to the Summit and Tip-Top Houses on Mount Washington. Several of the larger hotels had their own on-site train depots for even greater convenience.

Fabyan House wagon. Museum of the White Mountains,
Hamilton collection

Excursion broadsides. Courtesy of Bryant F. Tolles, Jr.


Guests enjoyed taking their daily meals in elegantly styled dining rooms where they could socialize and be seen and admired by other fashionable tourists. The cuisine was excellent, menus extensive, and the table service was kept to a high standard.

Maplewood Hotel dining room, 1913. Courtesy of Vincent Lunetta

New menus were printed daily, and meals featured fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, cream and butter, which was furnished by nearby farms owned by the hotels. Children and servants dined separately at specific times during the day.

Hotel menus. Museum of the White Mountains, Hamilton collection


Museum of the White Mountains, Hamilton collection

These first and second floor plans from a circa 1885 booklet advertising the Mount Pleasant House in Carroll, NH allowed guests to select their rooms sight unseen.

Taking full advantage of new techniques in graphic reproduction, these enterprises, in their promotional publications, press and advertising, sought to capture the public’s imagination by presenting carefully chosen, orchestrated and packaged stylized images. The rhetoric of the printed word and pictorial representation, when combined with the realism of the building and site, proved a convincing and effective educational vehicle, drawing the unconverted to the grand hotel mystique.

Bryant F. Tolles, Jr. The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains: A Vanishing Architectural Legacy. David R Godine. 1998.