I’m standing in front of one of the last of the grand Victorian hotels in Rhode Island, the Ocean House Watch Hill.
The Ocean House has survived in spite of the Hurricane of 1938, the Great Depression, Hurricane Carol in 1954, and changing times. Weather beaten, floors sagging and roof leaking, she limped into the twenty-first century still welcoming guests as she had for over one-hundred and fifty years until finally closing in 2004, but that wasn’t the end of her story.
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The Victorian era lasted from 1820 to 1914 and was characterized by the development of a wealthy leisure class. It was a time of great social change, the Industrial Revolution, scientific discovery, and the first telephone and telegraph.
With means at their disposal people were able to flee the heat and soot of the city to the bracing air of the seashore. Narragansett, Newport, Watch Hill and many other seaside towns were developed into resorts. The era of the grand Victorian hotels had begun.
How it started
The story of the Ocean House begins with Jonathan Nash Jr., Watch Hill’s first lighthouse keeper. Like many lighthouse keepers at the time Nash started taking in boarders to supplement his meager income. After being let go for political reasons and recognizing Watch Hill’s potential he built the Watch Hill House in1833. It was the first of what eventually would be one of eight large hotels in Watch Hill.
Nash’s son, Captain George M. Nash, became the first proprietor of the Watch Hill House. Following in his father’s footsteps George built the Ocean House in 1868. The original Ocean House was small but many additions created the iconic hotel that would later become the queen of Rhode Island’s Victorian era hotels.
A summer resort community
By the 1880’s Watch Hill was being promoted as the Queen of Atlantic Resorts. Most people arrived by steamboat and later by trolley. Some of the attractions were the beach, sailing and fishing, bike riding, and dancing at the hotels.
There was also the Watch Hill Carousel, a movie theatre, the Shore Dinner House, known for its daily clam bakes, the Misquamicut Golf Club, and the Watch Hill Billiard Room and Bowling Alley. George Nash was renowned for his twenty-five cent lobster dinners and at the end of every season a grand ball was held at the Ocean House.
By 1886 eight large hotels served Watch Hill but even as Watch Hill’s hotels were entering their golden age the character of Watch Hill began to change from a resort to a cottage community. The first of three large housing subdivisions were created by Cincinnati syndicates. Lots were sold and many of today’s large seasonal cottages were built.
In the summer of 1916 the Ocean House was the scene of the production of the silent motion picture, American Aristocracy starring Douglas Fairbanks and Jewel Carmen. Only a few months after the filming, on October 18, 1916, a devastating fire destroyed three of the last large hotels leaving only the Narragansett House and the Ocean House.
After the fire the Ocean House operated for another fifty years until it was demolished in 2005 but that wasn’t the end of her story. In part 2 of our series we’ll show you how she reemerged, like a butterfly from its cocoon, to become the 5-star resort hotel she is today.
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