Local History

Ocean House Watch Hill | Then & Now

In Part 1 of our Ocean House article, we gave you a brief history.

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The Ocean House Watch Hill was the last of the grand Victorian hotels in Rhode Island and after closing, in 2003, the property was sold to a developer who planned to build ocean front homes. To save the iconic hotel Watch Hill resident Chuck Royce acquired an option to buy the hotel.

“It’s not just a building,” said Royce. “It represents who we are as a society and a community.”

Unfortunately the building was too far gone to be saved and was demolished in 2005. With the idea to keep as many of the old features as possible the new building was modeled after the original Ocean House as it was in 1908.

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The Restoration

After five years of work the Ocean House reopened in 2010. Before the hotel opened Chuck Royce welcomed the community to witness the unveiling of the restored Ocean House sign on top of the hotel.

The new design is 50,000 square feet larger than the original at 156,000 square feet. This would permit a 49-room hotel, 23 condominiums, and modern amenities and service functions such as meeting rooms, spa, lap pool, fitness center, and restaurants. It reconstructs much of the original design and restores many original details including the Victorian façade, iconic yellow siding, mansard roof, and lobby fireplace. Actual pieces of the original building were salvaged and the design replicates columns, capitals, and woodwork.

So how does a stay at the Ocean House differ today from the experience in the past? A 1950 retrospective from Seaside Topics described the hotel experience,

“The hotels were far from luxurious, their equipment for guests consisting of wooden beds, with none too downey mattresses, bowl and jar. But their food was the substantial attraction and was chiefly supplied from the sea and nearby farms.”

Then & Now

Author and historian Stephen Jones, whose family stayed at the Ocean House for generations, toured the hotel just before it was torn down. Steve noted many of the features that made it unique.

“We’re in the foyer of the Ocean House, this is the old part that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Presumably this will be rebuilt to be part of the new Ocean House because it’s part of the wonderful and original work that was done here. One of the glories of the place was this fireplace with the date 1895 on the front. I suspect they will duplicate, emulate, or somehow replicate it in the new version. We’re at the backend of the lobby where the gift shop was and in the windows there were all kinds of little knickknacks. After dinner we’d come here and poke around. Just down the hall was the Ping-Pong room.”

“The bar was down in the cellar and that was where most people in this area of the country know this place by because many more people came to the bar for dancing, music, and drinks than stayed overnight.”

“The idea in these old hotels, and this is true in the Block Island hotels as well, is you didn’t spend time in your room. You had no television there. No radio unless you brought one. You’d spend all your time in the lobby, or on the rotunda, or at the beach, or walking through town. You only went to your room to sleep.”

Although many things have changed from the old Ocean House the spirit of the old hotel was successfully captured. The main difference might be the new luxurious rooms but the primary attraction is still here, the incredible location. Sitting high on its bluff and overlooking the Atlantic the Ocean House, Queen of the Victorian era resort hotels, has regained her crown.

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  1. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful information.

  2. My ex husband worked on Mr Royce’s home in Avondale, gorgeous by the way, he told me that the OH was the largest old wooden structure on East Coast. I have not been in it after reconstruction but hoping my cousin from New York will come down and have tea and scones some afternoon.

  3. VERY interesting information.
    I used to work as a bartender in the original OH back in the 60s.
    I have not been in the new OH but plan on doing so soon.
    THANKS for sharing the story.
    I am here in Sun City Palm Desert CA full time now.

  4. I used to own Diane’s Beachwear which became Anne’s Beachwear…spent many fun filled happy hours on the old veranda of the Ocean House and after the renovation lunched on the outdoor patio…..good memories.

  5. I love this history of the Ocean House. Thank you so much for enlightening me..

  6. The definition of “restoration” is to take something that is substantially original and return it to the appearance it had at a specific time, taking pains to use materials and techniques from that specific period.

    The current Ocean House is a new building that nods to the memory of a lost building. It is constructed with modern materials and technology. Excepting the postcard view of the front/tower/veranda, *most* of it doesn’t look like the original building did at *any* time before it’s demolition.

    A worthy exercise and by all accounts a wonderful hotel, but not a “restoration” under even the loosest possible understanding of the word.

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