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The First 130 Years are the Hardest

Reborn after 20 dormant years, the
Wentworth already has a long history


SEE: Wentworth History

Portsmouth tycoon Frank Jones would be ecstatic. A century after his death, Jones’ grand hotel by the sea is back – big time. It looks, from the sea, remarkably as it did under Jones who added the three signature wooden towers and the distinctive mansard roof. It stands on the historic island of New Castle, once the provincial capital of the colony of New Hampshire within sight of where David Thomson built Pannaway Manor, the state’s first wooden house in 1623. It offers the same astonishing 360 –degree view that takes in three state coasts, Mt. Agamenticus, the Isles of Shoals, Portsmouth and, on a clear day, the White Mountains. It caters, as it has for 130-years, to those who enjoy and can afford its luxury.

Opened in 1874 – decked out in banners from nations around the world -- the original Wentworth was elegant for its day, but not opulent. The three-story flat-roofed structure looked like a shoebox on a hill. Over 600 visitors ogled the classy new hotel the week before it opened. Guests immediately filled the 82-rooms and booked, as was the Victorian custom, for the entire summer season of July and August. But the initial owners of the hotel went bankrupt. Proprietors Charles and Sarah Campbell of New Castle would certainly have been successful if their financial partner, a Massachusetts distiller named David Chase, had deeper pockets. . Chase went belly-up in the recession of 1877 and millionaire Jones swooped in for the kill in 1879.

The Tally Ho

Jones quickly doubled the size of the hotel, then doubled it again toward the end of the 19th century. By his death in 1902 the New Castle hotel stretched 800-feet along the 70-foot high bluff, dwarfing one end of New Hampshire’s smallest town. Today’s $25 million rebuilt Wentworth is roughly half the size of Jones’ gargantuan resort. Ocean Properties redesign is also the most costly since Jones lavished his private fortune on his own state-of-the-art hotel. Today’s Wentworth boasts 21st century features like DSL Internet access, an exotic spa and radiant heating in its marble bathroom floors. Jones offered high-tech steam-powered elevators, glorious flush toilets and the region’s first electrified outdoor lighting.

Wentworth Hotel

The Wentworth Hotel, according to one of Jones’ contemporaries, was largely responsible for spreading Portsmouth’s reputation as a burgeoning tourist destination. In his days wealthy visitors came by train, and during the off-season Wentworth managers criss-crossed the nation soliciting summer guests and spreading the gospel of New Hampshire’s jewel of a seacoast. Jones also spent liberally on advertising, kept on a 20-piece orchestra, built his own ice pond, raised his own coach horses, constructed the tennis courts and golf course, constructed a hotel vegetable farm, built a private power plant and ran his own water main and aqueduct in from the city. He bought two steam-powered ships – one for guests, and a little one for the children of his guests who rode it around Little Harbor, which Jones dammed up to create a salt-water lake. Surprisingly, Jones had an even bigger Wentworth Hotel in mind, but the architect’s plan was so extensive that it required shutting the hotel for a year. Even Jones could not afford to miss a profitable summer, so he went with a less opulent restoration.

Frank Jones missed the biggest event in his hotel’s history, but he paid for it from the grave. In 1905, two years after Jones’ demise, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt selected the Wentworth to house delegates who negotiated a peace to the Russo-Japanese War. The estate of the late Frank Jones picked up the tab for the stirring 30-day negotiations at the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyuard. The whole world watched. Teddy got the Nobel Peace Prize. The real estate value of the hotel suddenly jumped, so the Wentworth was sold to a series of "outsiders" hoping to cash in on the hotel’s fame.

Annie Oakley

Hotels should be run, history proves time and again, by "hotel people". You’ve got to love the hectic hospitality circus that never takes a day off. New owners, like Campbell and Chase, stumbled quickly. After Jones a number of owners quickly tried and sold off the hotel. Manager Harry Priest, however, was a hotel man to the core. He also owned the Carolina in Pinehurst, North Carolina and for decades after, migrant Wentworth staff workers moved back and forth with the seasons. Priest did his best to drum up a presidential visit -- Jones had attracted President Chester A. Arthrur – and tried to build an electric railway to the hotel, but both deals fell through. Instead, Priest talked marksman Annie Oakley into offering shooting lessons to Wentworth guests. During the Roaring Twenties, Priest convinced golf legend Donald Ross to design nine seaside "Scottish" holes at the already famous Wentworth links.

Three more distinct eras followed before the rise of Ocean Properties today. Harry Beckwith, a wealthy manufacturer of, among other things, the toes of shoes, ran the Wentworth and the Farragut Hotel nearby as if they were private clubs for his wealthy circle of friends. It was an "exclusive" hotel in all the best, and all the worst connotations. Beckwith is best known for building ‘The Ship", a ship-shaped building where guests could watch talking films and live theater, play cards and party. Members of the Boston Symphony played on the deck of the Ship as swimmers exercised to the melody in Beckwith’s massive cement pool fed by seawater. Beckwith, who bought the hotel after the first World War, steered it safely through the Great Depression without missing a single season. But the giant white hotel was too convenient a target for German U-boats. The Wentworth was "dimmed out" for two years as huge artillery gunhers at New Castle and Rye military forts searched the waters and the sky for enemy craft.

On Labor Day weekend in 1945 a lanky Air Force major and his wife fell hopelessly in love with the aging hotel during their first visit to New England. Months later the 30-something couple from Colorado, James and Margaret Smith , purchased the sprawling hotel from Harry Becwith. The $200,000 deal included the golf course, the ocean-fed pool, the "Ship" and theater, a number of summer cottages, a year-round home across the Little Harbor bridge and 256 acres of scenic real estate. A graduate of the nation’s first hotel management school at Cornell, James Barker Smith was a third-generation hotelman. His wife Margaret, the only woman in a class of 300 at Colorado State, learned quickly. Together, the "royal family" of New Castle turned their dowdy white elephant into a gold mine. The Smiths expanded the spring and fall seasons booking 250 conferences per year and quickly increased the hotel’s annual income to $7 million.

Wentworth by the Sea

For 34 summers the Smiths entertained the rich and famous, catering especially to "the bluebloods" and the "dowagers" as Smith called them. Besides masquerade balls and clambakes for up to 1,000 visitors in a day, the Smiths arranged up to 100 private parties per summer. One popular patron, Margaret Smith noted, spent $50,000 on an afternoon gathering of friends. But the grand resort age was fading as were its patrons and the Wentworth. After a 1989 dormitory fire that killed one worker, the Smith’s faced enormous repair costs and a shrinking clientele. When Jim Smith was diagnosed with cancer, the couple sold the hotel in 1980 to a Swiss firm that planned to open it year round. But the Swiss entrepreneurs were not "hotel people" and after one season, they closed the Wentworth.

For two decades the hotel languished. A series of corporations purchased the Victorian giant. Each promised to restore the hotel, but instead sold off the land to build extravagant condominiums. The golf course and the marina were sold. In November 1991 the Henley Corporation, then the current owner, set off a firestorm when they applied for a permit to demolish the historic portion of the original hotel still standing. The nonprofit agency Friends of the Wentworth formed quickly from among New Castle residents. Initially the group raised $70,000 simply to repaint the decrepit exterior. When the hotel sold again and the next owners also threatened demolition, the group got Wentworth by the Sea listed among the top 11 "most endangered" properties in the nation.

"We are not going to tear that building down!" Ocean Properties CEO Bill Walsh announced during early sales talks in 1997. He was right, although the battle would last another five years. A small group of New Castle residents were dead set against the revival of a busy hotel. In the end it was this family-owned Portsmouth company of hotel owners who came to the rescue, guided by the Friends of the Wentworth. After extensive on-again-off-again negotiations with owners Great Island Trust, Ocean Properties purchased the hotel in 1999 and began building in 2002.

It is not a reconstruction. The 163-room Wentworth-by-the-Sea Marriott Hotel and Spa is something new joined with something old. Inside the distinctive wooden hotel are the original timbers and a few of the original features of the old Wentworth. But housed there too are all of its many stories and 130 years of memories.

By J. Dennis Robinson
Photos courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
Annie Oakley courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Copyright © 2003 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..

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