New book explores Ocean House's history and grand reconstruction

Ocean House, La terrasse (Copyright @ 2018 by Ocean House Management, Llc.)
Ocean House, La terrasse (Copyright @ 2018 by Ocean House Management, Llc.)

A new coffee-table book explores the history of the elegant Ocean House in Watch Hill, from its humble beginnings to the $96 million reconstruction completed nine years ago in the midst of the Great Recession.

"A Sense of Place: The History of Ocean House," co-authored by Lauren DiStefano and Deborah Stewart and published by Ocean House Management LLC, takes readers on a journey through time with fascinating historical photos along with a peek inside some of the resort's beautifully appointed modern rooms and private residences.

Surprisingly, the now-grand Ocean House started out as an unremarkable stick-built, shingle-style building that was among the smallest lodging houses in Watch Hill at its opening in 1868, just a few years after the Civil War. But it quickly took off, eventually transforming into a stately summer hotel with a Palladian front door, Greek-inspired columns and a sweeping veranda featured in a 1917 silent film by movie idol Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The early visitors, said DiStefano, were from as far away as Cincinnati and St. Louis, largely city dwellers looking for a place to stay for a month or more of the summer. They were mostly from the leisure class who were reaping the economic post-war prosperity of a country booming with the vibrancy of newfound discoveries that became part of the Industrial Revolution. 

"They were looking for peace and quiet, some serenity," DiStefano said.

DiStefano said the Ocean House became the center of Watch Hill social news and gossip as reported in Seaside Topics, a newsletter full of stories about fashionable concerts and dances, not to mention baseball games played at the property's Diamond by the Sea. Field days included races, obstacle courses and tug of war, while guests also enjoyed boating, sunbathing, golf and tennis.

The Ocean House benefited from its perfect location perched above some of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast (the name Watch Hill itself came from early settlers' observation that Native Americans used the area to track the movements of hostile tribes in the area).

But luck played a part as well.

In 1916, for instance, a fire in Watch Hill leveled many businesses and hotels, while Ocean House survived unscathed. The hotel remained intact again after both a major fire and furious hurricane at two different times in 1938, the same year the building was purchased by the Bankert family.

At its height, Ocean House had 154 rooms. But by the turn of the 21st century, it was just a shell of its former self, and in 2003, the battered seaside hotel shuttered its doors with less than half its rooms usable, lead paint and mold adding to its sorry state.

The following year, after the horrific Station Night Club fire in West Warwick, R.I.,  killed 100 patrons in a similarly decrepit building, officials condemned the Ocean House. Two other plans for the site were considered, including a Greenwich developer's proposal to erect several McMansions, but Watch Hill residents wouldn't let go of their dreams for the resurrection of the Ocean House, and the ideas quickly lost momentum.

"Suddenly, it was just this movement to save the Ocean House," recalled DiStefano, who grew up in Watch Hill and was a child at the time. "Bumper stickers, hats. It was a big deal. People were just really really attached to the hotel, and you realized this was an icon."

That's when Chuck Royce, a nearby resident who made millions in the financial markets, came up with the idea of saving Ocean House. He bought the property for $11.5 million and hired Centerbrook Architects in Essex to plan its future.

Quickly, though, it became apparent that, to save the Ocean House, it would have to be replicated, not restored.

"We had to raze it to save it," as lead architect Jefferson B. Riley said in the book's foreward, recounting the building's deplorable condition and lack of heating, air conditioning, fire prevention and handicap accessibility.

The idea of tearing down the Ocean House did not please historic-preservation groups.

"It was a long, drawn-out battle," DiStefano acknowledged.

But Royce and Riley were eventually able to get much of the Watch Hill behind the project, partly by reconfiguring the new building to allow for more extensive ocean views from the street and partly by pointing to other successful historic replications such as the Conservatory of Flowers, a park in San Francisco.

The old Ocean House was eventually knocked down, but not before more than 5,000 artifacts from the old hotel were saved for reuse in the new building. Using old blueprints and maps at what it called the Ocean House "war room" at its Essex offices, Centerbrook Architects added 50,000 square feet to the original hotel while preserving its "historic kernel" in more than half of the new footprint. 

"All the windows are in the exact same location as at the turn of the century," DiStefano said.

But before the new hotel was built, Watch Hill residents were invited to a pre-demolition tour of the old Ocean House, a "final viewing" that DiStefano said attracted hundreds of people Thanksgiving Day weekend in 2007, a line snaking down Bluff Avenue.

A more festive mood occurred in January 2008 during the cornerstone laying for the new Ocean House. The new hotel was to be built into the bluff, requiring blasting of huge boulders that snagged construction plans a bit, but by spring 2010, the grand opening was set, attracting thousands.

"It almost turned into a Walt Disney World attraction," DiStefano marveled.

It was a reception no one saw coming in the middle of the Great Recession. Instead of the few dozen diners they expected early on in the season, the dining room was serving hundreds, and rooms were 100 percent occupied during the summer season.

"They were woefully understaffed," said DiStefano, durrently group meetings and special events manager for a group of properties that includes the Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn.

The original 100-person, year-round workforce has since been upped to 180, and DiStefano said the 180 seasonal workers are now closer to 400.

The Ocean House, just steps away from the oceanfront home of singer Taylor Swift, currently has 49 guest rooms and 23 private residences, about half of the number of units in the original hotel. The idea, said DiStefano, was to give those with private residences the ability to mingle with resort-goers or keep to themselves in what would essentially be an oceanfront beach condominium.

"All guest rooms are configured differently," she said. "The majority face water."

DiStefano said the best thing about the new Ocean House is that it has kept the same feeling of openness that Watch Hill residents recall fondly from the old hotel. DiStefano cited many programs that the resort offers to both guests and local residents, including private cooking classes and wine tastings as well as a local artisan's showcase that is offering monthly workshops.

"The Ocean House really is a hotel for the community," she said. "We always have the community in mind because that's what makes the hotel so great."

DiStefano also complimented the staff, saying it's the smile and service that keep people coming back to the hotel, which was voted No. 1 resort in the continental United States and No. 5 in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2014.

"It's one of the last grand Victorian hotels," she said. "It reminds us of a bygone era."

l.howard@theday.com

 

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Co-author Lauren DiStefano (Submitted)
Co-author Lauren DiStefano (Submitted)
Ocean House (Submitted)
Ocean House (Submitted)

About the book

What: "A Sense of Place: The History of Ocean House"

Price: $65

Pages: 138

Publisher: Ocean House Management LLC

For sale: Ocean House Boutique or online at

https://www.oceanhouseri.com/product/ocean-house-history-ocean-house.

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