While driving down the winding streets of Westerly, Rhode Island towards the historic Watch Hill district my copilot, Kate Kolenda, decided to put on a song I had never heard before called, New England, by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers. It’s the kind of song that feels like it’s frozen in a certain moment in time, and has the ability to transport you back to that moment. As we passed through the picturesque New England landscapes dotted with mansard roofs and farms, we rounded a corner and the Ocean House resort erupted into view in all its majesty and grandeur, and it was in that moment that I realized we were about to be transported to another moment in time.
We pulled up to the entrance and were whisked away towards the lobby as the smiling and cordial valet and other attendants took our bags and belongings up to the room. The white staircase leading to the front doors turns into a wrap-around veranda where, during the warmer months, guests can enjoy a casual meal in the sunshine.
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Stepping inside Ocean House is like traveling back in time to the Gilded Age itself. Originally built in 1868, Ocean House’s story is one of resilience. It now stands pale yellow and obstinate against the harsh Atlantic, the only hotel from the Gilded Age on Watch Hill to survive seasonal hurricanes and catastrophic fires, but it nearly succumbed to the elements. Ocean House was once the kind of place where one might attend teatime after a morning out on the yacht, where the silent film classic American Aristocracy starring Douglas Fairbanks was filmed in 1916, but by the early-2000s the building had fallen into such disrepair that it could not feasibly be brought up to modern safety codes.
Then, in 2004, a developer bought the property with plans to demolish and build several oceanfront homes, but the residents of Watch Hill rose up, and in an early display of crowd sourcing they banded together and saved the property from the threat of McMansions. The fact remained, however, that the building could not be preserved. An outside consultant concluded that the only way to save Ocean House would be to tear it down and replicate the original by rebuilding with modern materials and techniques. And so they did.
Every little detail and dimension was documented then replicated, and as much of the original building that could be saved has been reused. The modern Ocean House features many of the same fixtures that adorned the demolished hotel, and even the original oak-paneled elevator was saved and brought up to code. The floorboards are made of softer pinewood that was chosen because it would show signs of age and wear more rapidly than a stronger hardwood. The well-worn reception desk is also original, as are the beautiful handles on the outer doors of the building, but the most impressive feat of preservation-through-replication is the enormous stone fireplace that sits between the living room and the Bistro; every single stone was numbered and countless photos were taken so the fireplace could be dismantled then reassembled with the new construction. The first rebuild wasn’t accurate enough though, and the new owners had the builders dismantle and reassemble the fireplace a second time, which gives just a small idea of how detail-oriented the rebuilding process was.
Ocean House RI/Facebook
The stunning design and architecture of the hotel would be sufficient to transport guests back in time to a Victorian summer, but Ocean House ups the ante with a breathtaking collection of rotating art installations that adorn the walls of hallways and common areas. During our stay the ground floor and downstairs area were decked out in paintings, sketches and illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans, including many of his most famous creation Madeline, and caricatures by Sem of socialites and celebrities from French high society in the early 20th century lined the walls of the hallway where our room was located. I actually found myself so engrossed by each one that before I knew it thirty minutes had gone by, so block out some time for art appreciation when you visit. The pieces curated by Ocean House reinforced the idea of time travel with subtlety, gently suggesting the era they were born in without being heavy-handed about it.