Travel: Stepping Back in Time
James and I pass over the state line into New Hampshire from Massachusetts. We’re starting to see glimpses of the White Mountains ahead. It's the eve of our thirty-first wedding anniversary and we've decided to splurge and stay two nights in a grand hotel.
It's late in the afternoon when we arrive at the Omni Mount Washington Resort, built in 1902. It wows us with its grandeur although it does greatly resemble the hotel depicted in the movie, The Shining.
Once inside the door, we step into the past, or so it seems. The Grand Hall, a magnificent room alive with history bids us stay and explore. Woven throughout the carpet in the main hall are illustrations of Flora such as Rhododendron and Bluebells and many other native flowers as well as animal tracks such as bear, moose, fox, and man.
We stroll the length of the hall and linger at sitting areas along the way, feeling almost like we're eavesdropping on conversations of long ago.
We stop to warm our hands at the fireplace. Even though it's mid-August , there's a chill in the air.
In the center of the room stands a grandfather clock. Back in the day, the tradition was to have the first guest of the season wind the clock and start it and the last guest leaving to stop it. This tradition went on until 2001 when the hotel went into year round operation. The clock, an early 19th century English shell clock, came from the home of Joseph Stickney, the man who owned the hotel.
The bellman beckons to us and we follow him to the elevator. The doors open and we step into a hallway that seems to go on forever. We imagine the breezes blowing through the transoms above each door as wealthy families arrived for a summer-long stay. They’d rent one whole side of a hall, and without ever going out of their suite, they'd pass from room to room through extensions that are now huge closets.
Our room isn't large, but the ten-foot-high ceilings and two oversized windows overlooking the beautiful grounds make it seem spacious. Having left the hot weather behind in Tennessee, we open the windows and a cool breeze filters in.
As we stand looking out, we can almost see the guests arriving from Boston and Portland by horse and carriage all those many years ago. In its original construction, the hotel, still the largest wooden structure in New England, had more than 2,000 doors and 1,200 windows containing over half an acre of glass with a foundation made of cut granite, quarried on the property.
After dinner we sit on the veranda and gaze at the White Mountains, their peaks named after U.S. Presidents and other notable Americans such as Daniel Webster and Benjamin Franklin.
On the grass below, children run and play just as they might have a hundred years ago.
The veranda, with it's 122 columns and the sweet fragrance of seventy blooming plants, makes it easy to leave behind the stress of life. We settle into a wicker settee, just as lovers might have a century ago, the clean mountain air invigorating. My mind's eye sees a uniformed nanny delivering a freshly scrubbed baby and a young child to their mother's lap in preparation for a family portrait. With the White Mountains in the background, an artist paints a stern-faced father, his hand resting on his wife's shoulder, the children's eyes wide and alert, focused on something we cannot see.
The next morning we go to the lobby for the historic tour of the hotel. We're told Mr. Stickney bought ten thousand acres for $1 an acre. It came that cheap because a lumber company had clear-cut the land and in the public's eye at the time, the land was then useless.
In the Great Hall, we stop at what was once the only phone in the hotel. It has slots for silver dollars, half dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels. I doubt it mattered to many that this was the only phone. It was a slower time. Folks wrote letters or sent postcards. Many gathered on the veranda to catch up on the day's news.
There's also a watchman in the Great Hall. Can you imagine the security guards of yesteryear as they turned a key in locks throughout the hotel? They registered on the watchman and proved the guards weren't sleeping on the job.
Next we stroll into a half-circle shaped room known as the conservatory, its walls made entirely of plate glass. The dome is Tiffany and was installed by Edison. Think of the visitors sitting about the room, the men smoking cigars and ribbing each other about their golf game, the women opening silk fans, leaning into a nearby friend to make a comment on another's gown, both eager for the evenings festivities to begin. Listen carefully and you might hear the soothing background music of the 1881 Steinway piano brought from Stickney's home in New York.
Perhaps a cozy fire burned in the fireplace as lover's sat close and talked of their future.
Near the reception desk, the Stickneys had a fourteen room apartment on the third floor. There was a balcony at the end of the hall overlooking the lobby.
It's said Mrs. Stickney used to stand there and watch the other women come down the grand staircase and see if anyone had on a more beautiful dress than she. If so, she’d go back to her room and change in preparation for dinner. The balcony is now boarded up and an oil painting of her fills the space.
There was only one seating for dinner in those days and Carolyn Stickney was always the last to enter the dining room that holds 500. It's octagonal shape ensured no guest would feel slighted by being seated in a corner. Imagine the sun glinting through the Tiffany glass windows and performers on the balconies serenading the guests as they socialized with friends. Once Mrs Stickney arrived, the doors were closed and locked. A table is still set for her every night.
The hotel even has a Post Office. Until recently, it was the only hotel Post Office with its own zip code. 03575. Can you hear the trains chugging up the mountain bringing the mail, anxious residents checking to see if a letter has arrived for them.
There’s a room called The Cave. Today it’s an evening bar and a place to meet for televised sporting events, but once upon a time it was a squash court and later converted into a bar and grille and continued to operate as a speakeasy during prohibition where guests drank out of tea cups. Can you picture the man stationed at the back window keeping watch for officials. Listen for his whistle as police come up the long drive, the clatter of teacups thrown into a wooden barrel for disposal.
We enter the game room, formerly the hotel’s billiards room and I can almost smell the scent of cigar smoke and visualize the men who wagered bets on shots. Next door, in the ticket room, they checked their stocks. Beside that, in what is a gift shop today, was the women’s room. I envision ladies sitting at tables sipping their wine and playing cards.
At one time the hotel had a bowling alley. After people started driving cars, they made a car barn across from the bowling alley.
The hotels indoor pool was the first in the country. Think of the splashing about and squeals as the women and children swam at their designated times, different from the men's assigned times.
Carolyn Reynolds Stickney inherited the hotel in the 1930's after Mr. Stickney died of an illness while abroad. By 1944 the hotel had fallen into disrepair so the U.S. Government offered a stipend to repair it and have the Monetary Conference in the next room we visit, the Grand Ballroom, where originally there were 234 rosette lights around it, one for each of the original hotel guests.
From July 1-22 in 1944, 1,000 people stayed in the hotel for the Conference, some even sleeping in closets. They set up the World Bank, set the gold standard at $35 an ounce, and tied the value of other countries’ currencies to the U.S. dollar.
After the tour we take a walk around the property and enjoy seeing the mountains and hotel from every angle with the sun dipping lower in the sky and the clouds constantly changing.
We walk beside the river and picture children of many years ago splashing about in the water, the sound of their giggles like musical notes in the air. Perhaps there was one boy who stood aside, tossing pebbles into the water and watching as circles grew larger from the point of entry. Maybe a frog jumped into the stream beside a little girl and made her scream.
When we finish our walk, we return to the veranda and order a cheese tray and a club sandwich for dinner. The hotel and grounds are restful and probably not so different from a hundred years ago when folks sat right where we are now.
I look to my right and see a young woman with a journal. Again my mind goes back in time. She's too old to play with the children and not old enough to be included in the formal dinners each night. Does she sit and write about a young man who has caught her fancy? Is he standing further down the veranda leaning against the railing thinking of her and giving her sideways glances while her chaperone looks on? Is love about to bloom just like the blossoms that open before us?
The next morning we must say goodbye to the Omni Mount Washington Resort. We aren't wealthy, but the fairy-tale-like place allowed us to step back in time and get a sense of how the affluent lived. During our stay, we were transported to a setting where time moved much slower, the extravagant beauty and history of the hotel and grounds astounded us, and we got a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of the rich and famous of a time gone by.