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Hotel history: Ocean House opens in 1868 on Rhode Island

Stanley Turkel, CMHS,  Mar 09, 2016

Well-known for its warm yellow facade and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Ocean House opened in 1868 just after the Civil War. Over the years, many additions and improvements were made to the hotel but never heating, air conditioning or ventilation. It was a seasonal hotel open only for about three months a year. In 1916, a motion picture starring Douglas Fairbanks called American Aristocracy was filmed at the Ocean House.

After a disastrous fire at the Great White Station nightclub, Rhode Island's fire codes were more rigorously enforced. The 138-year-old Ocean House structure was grossly non-compliant with the new building and life safety codes. Over time, the wooden building's structure had been compromised due to the installation of electric and gas lines, plumbing and changes in room layout to accommodate private bathrooms. The Ocean House had welcomed guests for more than a century but, as with many historic old hotels, time and neglect took its toll.

The Ocean House was closed in 2003 when the new owner, long time Watch Hill summer resident Charles M. Royce, realized that the rambling yellow hotel was too decrepit to be restored. The old historic Ocean House structure was demolished in 2005. Before demolition, the developer saved everything deemed historically significant and planned to reuse it in the new hotel or to reproduce it. The less important items like appliances, lamps and rugs were auctioned off, with some of the proceeds going to a non- profit organization that supports drug recovery programs. Royce hired Connecticut-based Centerbrook Architects and Planning for the restoration and rebuilding project. The guidelines to the architects from Royce were that the exact footprint of the building would be maintained. Centerbrook completely recreated Ocean House on the outside down to the paint color and signage to look exactly like the original. To many people, Royce appeared on the scene like a white knight. Not only did he rescue Ocean House but replicated and improved it far better than the original.

The new Ocean House is positioned precisely on its former footprint overlooking a private ocean-front beach. While it presents a smaller profile to the neighborhood than before, it is significantly larger than the original. Many historical architectural elements, saved from the original building, were restored and reinserted into the new building, including the reception desk, main lobby fireplace made of beach stones, the ornamental oak elevator cab, the iconic Ocean House sign, fan-light doors, an ornate mantel piece, mahogany balustrades, Victorian light fixtures, and an exterior balcony ensemble with a Palladian window over the front door. The hotel now offers fine dining in the replicated dining room, new decks with broad ocean views, a bar with casual dining, an indoor lap pool, banquet halls, a private club room, a corporate board room, a spa and fitness center, 50 guestrooms, 23 residences, underground parking, and an international croquet court. The new north wing contains a few guestrooms but mainly several residences with roof-top decks and gazebos. Its curved shaped bends away from the street to reveal views of the ocean previously hidden. The new east wing, which runs parallel to the beach contains new residences with second floor decks and ground-level gardens, all featuring panoramic ocean views. Both new wings reflect adherence to the original Ocean House design yet offer modern accommodations. The new north wing meets the east wing and encloses two large decks which serves the restaurant, pool and events room. Together, they effectively form a protective enclave that maintains ocean views and offers privacy for hotel guests.

Royce hired Daniel Hostettler as president and managing director of Ocean House Management. Hostettler previously served as managing director of Lajitas – The Ultimate Hideout, an independent luxury destination in western Texas.

David Brussat, Architectural Critic, Providence Journal wrote:

"Few tours of buildings have astonished me as much as this tour of Ocean House. The diligence of copying the past was brilliant, including the extensive reuse of lobby furniture, stonework and ornament salvaged from the sainted old Ocean House. Just as amazing was the equally faithful-to-the-past use of the building's historical style in the additions that transform it from an old to a new building. In every corner of the new Ocean House the spirit of the old Ocean House lives on."

In April 2012, the Ocean House Management, LLC assumed management of the historic 31- room Weekapaug Inn after a $20 million transformation. Originally built in 1899, the Inn is designed in Classic Cape Cod-style architecture covered with red cedar shingles and accented by dark brown trim. The Weekapaug Inn was acquired and restored by Langdon Wheeler and his wife who have rehabbed 21 other buildings. Located just five miles away, the AAA Five Diamond Ocean House serves as a sister property allowing guests of the Inn the use of the Ocean House facilities including Rhode Island's only Forbes Five Star Spa.

The Ocean House has received some of the most prestigious awards in the United States in the past few years:

• July 2014: Travel & Leisure World’s Best Awards 2014 ranks Rhode Island’s Ocean House as the No. 1 Resort in Continental U.S.

• January 2015: Watch Hill Inn named to Conde Nast Travelers annual Gold List, one of only 25 properties in the U.S. to make the list

• February 2015: Ocean House awarded Triple Five-Star Designation by the Forbes Travel Guide for its hotel, OH! Spa and Seasons restaurant. It is the only property to become a triple Five-Star hotel in 2015

This article has been excerpted with the author’s permission from the book, "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi," AuthorHouse 2013. The author, Stanley Turkel, is a recognized authority and consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel, hospitality and consulting practice specializing in asset management, operational audits and the effectiveness of hotel franchising agreements and litigation support assignments. Clients are hotel owners, investors and lending institutions. His latest book is "Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."

Hotel history: Ocean House opens in 1868 on Rhode Island

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