Who Stole the Wentworth Hotel?
I'm all confused about the historic Wentworth Hotel that seems to be slipping from our grasp despite many valiant efforts to preserve and re-open it. I find myself avoiding New Castle lately, not wanting to watch what's going on there. It's the same feeling I get when passing Portsmouth's ancient North Cemetery too these days, not for fear of the dead, but the living. This week another knife-wielding drunk was arrested for assault among the ruins. Over the winter, a suicidal writer with a revolver wrote his own epitaph there. Angry men with weapons seem to be everywhere these days.
But it's the cemetery vandals who really tear me up, the ones who come like thieves in the night to do their secret violence and steal away our past. I found another tombstone down the last time I wandered through North Cemetery searching for John Langdon's crypt and the headstones of forgotten Revolutionary War heroes. One marble marker, too weathered to read easily, lay flat and split, felled after two centuries by the premeditated hand of no one in particular.
It's the anonymity of vandals, I think, that sets me off. At least with men and guns we have someone to blame. What I fear mostly is my own reaction when I see, again and again, old tombs toppled and smashed. I get angry. I feel powerless. I've been robbed of something I didn't own by someone I never met. Judging by the mound of Budweiser cans perpetually heaped against the sarcophagus of Gen. William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence, I'd say some underage drinkers just got a little out of hand., but I've got no hard evidence. According to a newspaper report from the 1920s, it's been going on here at North Cemetery for a long time.
They're probably nice kids too, if you knew them sober one by one. They probably don't understand what they're doing. Their teachers and parents and friends never fired them with a passion for the past. They don't understand that, until you come to terms with it, you can't build a future that stands solid. They think the tombstones are about old dead people. They don't see that they are beacons from the past, messages that guide us forward. Our children are lost in the present tense. So they kick down another stone, and another beacon goes out.
People have been complaining to the City for decades. There's no money, they say. Dead people don't vote. Every time I come back another tomb is vandalized and I don't understand, so I try not to think about it.
That's how I've come to feel about Wentworth-by-the-Sea in the last decade too. I'm old enough to have attended a conference there. I wrote an article about the waning days of the Wentworth hotel that the owners, Margaret and Jim Smith, liked well enough to invite me to dinner.
I know a little of the Wentworth hotel story, how it was built in 1874 and expanded under the dynasty of tycoon Frank Jones. There are tons of old pictures in the Portsmouth Athenaeum and I poured through them recently. It's a glitzy story -- lots of big bands, dances, tennis tournaments, plenty of politics and liquor, food and fashion, sailing and sport, probably a lot of sexy secrets to boot. There's lots of bigotry too, against ethnic groups banned from the country club world that was, for a long time, all white, all Gentile and well-to-do.
It isn't always a pretty story, but it's a fascinating one -- from the presidential suite to the back rooms of the summer staff. What's left of the once-sprawling hotel complex is all we have, one of the last doorways standing to the lavish "golden" era of New Hampshire hotels. When the Smiths died, the oversized hotel foundered. A lot of private houses sprang up on the surrounding land. A nonprofit group called "Friends of the Wentworth" battled to keep the building away from the wrecking ball. They thought they had succeeded.
Last I knew Wentworth-by-the-Sea was "saved" when current owners, the Green Company, agreed to sell it to Ocean Properties who agreed to preserve its historic flavor and re-open the hotel. Then the deal went sour. Then it was back on.
The New Castle townspeople, mostly in favor of preserving the hotel, asked for more assurances. Some people want a permanent guarantee of no gambling, even though it is already illegal. Some people want a bigger sewage tank, less traffic, building code revisions. Ocean Properties has agreed to point after point, but the "crisis" has dragged on so long that even the hardiest preservationists don't want to think about the whole mess. Next week the town of New Castle votes for new selectmen. Ocean Properties says it cannot hang on through one more summer of lost revenue. A lot of people think the final shoot-out is days away.
People I like and trust tell me lately that the handwriting is on the wall; she's a goner. The final monument to the region's luxury hotel era stands boldly at the crest of the hill. It's a beacon from the past, beaming out tales we need to hear. When it's gone, for me, the diamond falls out of that elegant landscape, leaving only a ring of private homes. I don't mind the private homes, but they don't make my heart sing like the Wentworth.
What I fear, mostly, is my own gut reaction. If they tear it down, I'm less in love with this Seacoast region. It will be harder to drive down the ugly streets already sacrificed to modern stores and asphalt. It will be less joyous to ride my bicycle around the loop through New Castle. If enough old tombstones and buildings fall, I'm going to have to find another town that cares and move there.
Worst of all, I don't know who to blame. I've read the papers, but it's all too subtle for me. Everyone they interview seems to be in favor of saving the historic old hotel. I can't find the angry men with the guns anywhere.
So I mostly stay clear of Wentworth-by-the-Sea these days. Pretty soon there won't be much left anyway. Time erodes everything if you don't fight back. Eventually it carries the whole coastline away, one pebble at time, like a thief in the night.
Publicity photos of Wentworth-by-the-Sea from Friends of the Wentworth collection at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Photo of tomb by J. Dennis Robinson, SeacoastNH.com
Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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