The Story of the Decline and Survival of the Grand Hotels
Fire is an unfortunate common thread through the history of the Grand Hotels. This was a period before mandatory fire prevention systems, while construction was mostly wood frame. Many of the hotels had to be rebuilt more than once. By the 1900s however, many grand hotels and smaller area hotels ended permanently as businesses due to fires.
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The burning of the Profile House, August 2, 1923. Courtesy of Sugar Hill Historical Museum
The Crawford House burned and was rebuilt twice during its long history. Like many of the grand hotels, it struggled through financial uncertainty in the 20th century before finally closing its doors in 1975. It burned just a few years later.
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Burning of the Crawford House, 1977. Dick Hamilton photos. Courtesy of WhiteMountainHistory.org
Between 1851 and 1967, four hotels operated on the site of the Glen House at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road; tragically all were destroyed by fire, most recently in 1967. On September 12, 2018 history was made with the opening of the fifth Glen House in Gorham.
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A Changing Tourist Market
By the first decade of this century, however, American grand resort hotels, particularly those in very rural settings, had already peaked and signs of imminent decline were starting to appear. Ever more professionalized and standardized than a quarter century before, the hotel business was being conducted on an increasingly larger scale, requiring greater management expertise and skill, and vast amounts of capital. As resort hotels became more costly to operate, the burden of this expense was passed to the consumer; over time many hotels priced themselves out of existence, eroding the time-honored myth that they functioned solely for their guests’ personal enjoyment. In a curious, almost perverted way the grand hotels were victims of their own success – as ‘insulated stage sets for ordered social contacts and the display of wealth’ their appeal remained for the a selected few, but their broader, largely upper-middle-class clientele gradually slipped away to engage in other leisure-time life patterns and pursuits.Bryant F. Tolles, Jr. The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains: A Vanishing Architectural Legacy. David R Godine. 1998.
One hotel that managed to hang on through economic uncertainty was the Mount Washington Hotel. This was due in large part to its being selected to host the Bretton Woods Conference, officially known as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference.
The Monetary Conference was a gathering of delegates from 44 nations that met from July 1 to 22, 1944 in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to agree upon a series of new rules for the post-WWII international monetary system. The two major accomplishments of the conference were the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). www.state.gov
The Conference provided boost to the hotel’s economy and allowed the owners to make much needed upgrades to the hotel’s infrastructure. The publicity generated by the Conference also boosted the hotel’s popularity over the following years.
The Legacy of the Grand Hotels
By the beginning of the 20th century, the appeal of the grand resort hotel was beginning to fade. With the advent of the automobile, tourists who had once stayed for weeks and even entire summers at a single hotel could more easily travel to multiple destinations, and economic changes meant that many could no longer afford to stay at luxury hotels. Others sought increased privacy, independence, and family time, leading to the popularity of seasonal summer cottages and camps. By the 1960s many of the once grand hotels had faded into obsolescence and had been demolished or destroyed by fire.
Over time, the remaining grand hotels reorganized and reinvented. Many made the transition from summer only businesses to year-round enterprises. The impact of this change was felt in the local and regional economy and work force.
The few grand hotels that still exist, plus their smaller counterparts, have managed to successfully adapt to the changing tourist market by virtue of excellent business management, effective marketing, maintenance of facilities, and diversified programming. Today, their unique appeal rests with their historic traditions, ambiance, aesthetics, amenities, and architecture – plus the beauty of their surroundings, which continues to draw tourists to the White Mountains – and to the grand hotels.