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Harbor View Hotel: The "Grand Dame" of Martha's Vineyard

Stanley Turkel, CMHS  May 03, 2016

The Harbor View Hotel opened in 1891 overlooking Martha's Vineyard's Edgartown Lighthouse, Edgartown Harbor and Chappaquiddick Island. The grand opening was by invitation only with 400 islanders and hotel guests for an unforgettable evening. The hotel's verandas were hung with Chinese lanterns, the parlors were brightly decorated and the entire hotel was colorfully illuminated. Mattie Josephine Atkins of Denver provided the entertainment and the string quartet of the Fitchburg Band provided music for dancing which continued through the night.

The "Grand Dame" of Martha's Vineyard hotels sits on Starbuck's Neck where its 300-foot veranda is furnished with wooden rocking chairs for enjoyment of the view of the waterfronts of Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. Natural beauty is Martha’s Vineyard’s greatest asset: tall cliffs, pine woods and daisy meadows, ponds, shores and sparkling sea.

Edgartown became the wealthiest town in Martha's Vineyard during the height of the whaling industry in the 1830s and 1840s. Within seven years of the Civil War, the whaling industry came to a virtual halt. The citizens of Edgartown made a concerted effort to make their town an important summer resort. Harbor View Hotel was built at the end of North Water Street, where the rows of the homes of the whaling captains came to an end.

The 100-square-mile island, affectionately known as the Vineyard, is comprised of six beach towns with lots of open space between them—the "up-island" towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, and the "down-island" towns of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven (also known as Tisbury), and Edgartown. Like siblings, the towns are related but vary in style and temperament.

Between May and October, tourists and seasonal residents flock here as an antidote to harsh northeastern winters and to the hectic pace of their everyday lives—in pursuit of the beach, rolling woods, and relaxed ambiance. They join a contingent of full-time islanders pretty well, although car and bicycle traffic in the downtown areas slows as the population swells almost five-fold to 100,000. On summer weekends, adding to the mix, another 25,000 day-trippers come and go on ferries.

Fronting on the street, the hotel is actually a cluster of three buildings: the Main Building, the Governor Mayhew Building, and the Captain Cottages. Although larger in scale than most nearby residences, the property is of a similar vintage and architectural design. There's a welcoming private pool with a brick deck in the backyard and the hotel is just a short walk from public beaches.

The main building's wrap-around porch sports high-back rocking chairs painted seafoam green that invite guests to sit back and inhale the ocean air as they read, nap, or catch a few rays of sunshine. It offers commanding views of the harbor, Chappaquiddick Island, and the iconic Edgartown Lighthouse that juts into the sea at the end of a white seashell path across the road.

The federal government recently announced that to save money, it is putting the beacon up for auction since it is no longer considered "mission critical" to the Coast Guard. As a result, the town is looking into acquiring the property.

The airy hotel lobby is furnished with comfortable rattan and upholstery seating, and has plenty of windows that allow natural light to stream in. Model boats are displayed here, replicas of the ones guests can rent (with a captain) and take out in the harbor. Both picnic and sunset cruises, which can be chartered or rented per person for a maximum of six people, launch from the hotel's private dock. The 39-foot Stardust is a beautifully refurbished, Bunker and Ellis mahogany yacht originally built in 1966. The fleet also includes another powerboat and two sailboats for guests who want to take sailing lessons.

Service is helpful and friendly; many of the staff members return season after season. The property is welcoming to children (there's a supervised Kid's Club program) and pets. The public areas, including the glass-enclosed "Water Street" dining room, are elegant but relaxed. Many guests come to celebrate honeymoons or milestone anniversaries.

Unlike many cookie-cutter hotels, the upper floors of the Main Building creak from old age and part of its charm is that no two guestrooms look exactly the same. With both a front and back staircase, you feel as if you are staying at someone's family mansion. There are a total of 114 rooms on the property, including some three-bedroom cottage suites, many with pool, ocean or garden views.

Although this self-contained resort has everything on premises to keep guests from straying, the beauty and diversity of the island invite exploration. Edgartown's downtown area hosts an eclectic collection of boutiques, B&Bs, restaurants, inns, and art galleries that are about a five-minute walk from the hotel. Most of the shops are more traditional than trendy, more preppy than glitzy. You can take a drive, ride bicycles, or take public buses to get around if you want to go farther. The hotel concierge can arrange tee times, bike rentals, adventure tours and water sports.

A multi-million-dollar renovation from 2000 to 2005 restored Harbor View to Gilded Age splendor. The hotel was purchased by Scout Real Estate Capital in December 2006. The Nantucket-based company under the direction of Alan Worden has begun a multi-year restoration program for the Harbor View Hotel and its sister property, the Kelly House also located in the heart of Edgartown.

The Harbor View Hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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."

Harbor View Hotel: The "Grand Dame" of Martha's Vineyard

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