Weekapaug Inn’s history comes to life in new book
Exactly 100 years ago, an outbreak of polio hit the Weekapaug Inn, and the Westerly summer retreat had to close down, costing the owners an entire season of revenue.
The year was 1922, a reminder that health scares are nothing new, and that our ancestors had to be even more resilient than we have proven to be in the midst of a pandemic.
The resort, after all, was only two decades old, having opened on a small scale in 1899 before gradually expanding, so losing a summer was most assuredly a near-disaster.
"It reminds you history does repeat itself," said Lauren DiStefano, author of a new book titled "A Sense of Purpose: The History of the Weekapaug Inn."
Ironically, DiStefano's book itself was affected greatly by the pandemic. Though the book was ready for delivery in spring 2020, the skeletal staff that ran the inn over the past two years in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns has meant little time until recently to promote the book, which is DiStefano's follow-on to a similar coffee table-style hardcover on the history of the Ocean House.
But neither the polio outbreak nor the pandemic was quite the disaster visited on Westerly in September 1938, when the most devastating hurricane in the modern era bore down on the seaside resort, leaving Weekapaug Inn a shambles as it tore through the area a few weeks after guests had vacated at the end of the summer season.
"By late afternoon, the inn was completely cut off from the rest of the community by a 60-foot breach between the ocean and Quonnie Pond, where the tennis courts once stood," according to DeStefano's description.
It got worse. As the 120 mph winds swirled and the ocean raised up many feet above its usual level, waves started washing over the inn, eventually ripping off the west wing and carrying it into the sea.
"It seemed to us as though a thousand demons were tearing at it. ... (The sea) almost seemed to lick its lips as it dashed more and more furiously against the well braced structure," wrote inn owner Frederick C. Buffum in a recollection penned about two weeks later and included in the book.
Buffum soon after would decide to rebuild, hoping to be ready by the following summer. And, sure enough, by June 1939 the Buffums greeted their first guests of the season in a newer and more modern inn than "any of its coastal counterparts," DeStefano writes. "The new inn was a hit with returning guests. The biggest adjustment was not being able to hear the surf as clearly as before."
DiStefano, who serves the Weekapaug Inn as membership and events director, was the natural pick to write about the summer resort's history for Ocean House Management Group, which is part of the Relais & Chateau boutique hotel brand. After all, she grew up locally, graduating from Westerly High School and the University of Rhode Island, and had been an employee of the inn as a teenager, so she was already aware of many of the stories.
"It was kind of like a no-brainer," she said during an interview at the inn.
One of the most famous guests at the inn was Eleanor Roosevelt, who signed the Weekapaug guestbook on Aug. 11, 1926, as Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, six years before her husband would be elected president of the United States. It's unclear whether she may have participated in the exciting Fly Killing Contest that one year offered cash prizes for those who swatted away the most number of insects. In addition, a box of Whitman's Chocolates was offered to any inn employee who killed at least 50 flies.
Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was not the only well-known guest to have stayed overnight at Weekapaug Inn. Many celebrities continue to take in the beautiful seaside ambiance even today, though employees are constrained from naming names due to privacy considerations.
"It's a low-key place. It's a refuge," DiStefano said. "It's so under the radar. It's not big or over the top."
DiStefano got a lot of help in piecing the story together, including the input of DeeDee and Jim Buffum, he the fourth-generation descendant of the original owner. Owners of the inn themselves until 2010, they wrote in the forward about the "Weekapaug state of mind" that once caused a kid to declare his stay more fun than attending Disney World. The Buffums soon realized that the undivided attention parents could invest in their children during their Weekapaug vacation was "more meaningful than the most exciting high tech amusement park ever devised."
But in 2010, the Buffum family's ownership of the inn was passed to Chuck Royce along with his partner Langdon B. Wheeler, a native of Weekapaug. Royce, a famed investment guru, was the same man who funded the $140 million restoration of the Ocean House resort in Watch Hill.
By that time, the Buffums had already secured the Weekapaug Inn's spot on the National Register of Historic Places, but it would be up to Royce and Wheeler to shepherd the resort through a major transformation to a year-round destination.
The 1939 appearance of the inn would be largely retained, along with some of the furniture and other items that guests associated with the property's vintage years, but modern amenities brought the guest rooms and common areas into the 21st century. The original 150 rooms at Weekapaug Inn were drastically reduced to 35 over a similar footprint, meaning larger suites were created that could comfortably accommodate families on longer stays.
The new Weekapaug Inn is a year-round destination largely drawing from the Boston and New York areas, said general manager Daniel Abrashoff, who recently celebrated the hotel’s being named No. 1 in the Northeast in a Conde Nast Traveler readers’ poll. The inn is often entirely booked for wedding parties, and he said that during these weekends the resort is closed to outsiders so staff can focus on the wedding party without distraction. Other special events at the inn include wedding anniversaries, birthday parties and family reunions.
Most of the time, however, the inn's two restaurants are open to walk-in customers, and hotel personnel are happy to show folks around the inn and its sprawling grounds, which include a chef's garden where vegetables are grown for in-house consumption. The inn employs about 120 people during the summer season.
This month, Weekapaug Inn is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its acquisition by the current owners. No doubt, DiStefano's new book about the inn's history will be a great memento for those whose own lives are intricately associated with the magic of a place that generations have enjoyed as a respite from life's hubbub.
"It's a beautiful souvenir," DiStefano said. "It's almost like a yearbook."