Oh, I see! How inventive! You've actually stacked the boxes I am supposed to live in!

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Rebirth of a Classic Seaside Gem

Travel and tourism is one of Rhode Island's most valued industries, ultimately generating more than $2.26 billion for the state's economy. With more than 100 beaches, 400 miles of picture-perfect coastline, historical and cultural attractions, and world-class dining, it is no surprise that tourism and hospitality is Rhode Island's second-largest industry, supporting 70,179 jobs and more than $5 billion in spending in 2006.
Originally built in 1868 the Ocean House was built as Newport's first tourist destination resort. Actually located in Watch Hill, R.I., it was the last remaining waterfront Victorian Era hotel on mainland Rhode Island. Mid-way between Boston and New York, the big yellow hotel became, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, an innovative landmark physically and socially. For instance, Watch Hill's Ocean House was the first resort hotel in the country to offer telephone service, which made it a target for businessmen from major cities since they could access their offices while away on vacation. Perhaps even more importantly, the Ocean House was the first hotel to offer indoor plumbing!

In an article in the Hartford Courant, from July 4, 2010 Michael J. Crosby, AIA writes that in 2003 the old historic Ocean House hotel was shuttered and slated for demolition, its site fertile ground for a crop of McMansions. Watch Hill shuddered at the thought. Banding together to save the Ocean House, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, local preservationists, town planner Bill Hasse and the Westerly Town Council helped to create an "Oceanfront Historic Hotels" ordinance. That stopped the McMansion developers, but it didn't change the fact that the hotel was too far gone to save.

Centerbrook Architects, hired by Watch Hill resident Chuck Royce (who jumped in to revive the hotel), did a careful survey of the building and concluded that the cost of bringing the Ocean House back to its former glory as a viable hotel would be prohibitive. According to architect Jefferson Riley of Centerbrook, the structure was shaky, the cellar was beyond resuscitation and would not accommodate the needs of a modern facility, most of the existing building fabric was beyond restoration and code violations were numerous. Centerbrook advised him to tear it down.

This didn't sit very well with preservationists, who had just fought to save it. But Centerbrook made an interesting argument about reconstruction as preservation. Based on their research they determined that
the year 1908 was the apex of the hotel's history. Why couldn't a new Ocean House be reconstructed as it looked a century ago?

Centerbrook worked with an advisory committee of historic design experts on the design, staying faithful to the appearance of ocean house a century ago. The existing building was carefully documented. The overall heights of the new building are true to the original, as are critical dimensions such as the distance between floors and the size of windows and their position about the floors. A mansard roof replicated from the original graces the central tower.
Parts of the old building were salvaged — a decorative window and balcony over the front door, the front desk, a beach stone fireplace on the first floor that was taken apart and reconstructed precisely in the new hotel, and an old wood and wrought iron elevator cab that was sensitively enlarged so that you can't tell the new parts from the old. The architects were careful to replicate the columns, capitals, woodwork, railings—all the touchable details that give architecture its character, its authenticity. All of the materials close to human touch and eye are made of wood, while details on the upper stories are of synthetic materials easier to maintain.

Walking around and through the reconstructed Ocean House, it is difficult to argue with Centerbrook's logic—the only way to save the old building was to tear it down. If one follows a very strict interpretation of preservation, Ocean House is gone —there is very little of the original hotel that once stood on this spot. But in the larger context of the town of Watch Hill, the site, and its 140-year history, Ocean House is very much preserved.

The key here is to be clear about what is saved through preservation. A narrow view focuses exclusively on preserving a physical object. A broader view of preservation recognizes the fact that buildings constantly change physically. Additions are made, taken down, new pieces are added, old parts are demolished. What we are left with is a presence —the building in its context —the street, the neighborhood, the town, the city.
That presence is what is worth saving — and now infuses the Ocean House — even if it means we lose an old building beyond saving[1] .




The new hotel has 49 guest rooms and 23 luxury residential suites available for purchase. They will be priced at $2 million to $7 million for Studio, 1, or 2 bedrooms. New amenities in the new hotel include meeting rooms, spa, lap pool, fitness center, and restaurant. The construction of the new Ocean House was managed by Dimeo Construction Company of Providence, R.I.
  1.  Essex architect Michael J. Crosbie is chairman of the University of Hartford Department of Architecture, and a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

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