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New Ocean House

Susan: Hello, and welcome to the Librarians by the Sea Podcast. My name is Susan Conner, and I’m the assistant director here at the Swampscott Public Library. Today’s podcast is going to be all about the New Ocean House, which was a nationally-known resort hotel located right here in Swampscott. Today my guest is local resident Mary Cassidy, whom I’m sure many of you already know. Mary is a past president of the Swampscott Historical Society, she served on the Swampscott Historical Commission for many years, she was chairperson of the Train Depot Exterior Renovation Committee, and she was recently active with the restoration of Andrews Chapel. Thank you for joining me today, Mary.

Mary: Thank you very much, Susan, I’m happy to be here.

Susan: I understand that the new Ocean House was just an amazing place in its heyday, but tell me, why was a big hotel built in Swampscott?

Mary: Well, the history of the New Ocean House goes way back, as far back as 1835. Now keep in mind that’s before Swampscott was a town and before the Civil War. And it wasn’t on Puritan Road at all; the very first one was called the Ocean House and the story goes that the proprietor of a well-known restaurant in Boston was fishing one day off the Swampscott shore and he remarked as he passed by Phillips point – now I want to stop and say that the Phillips family owned everything from the Fish House all the way to Marblehead, and they had a large family and they had several farms, but it was all owned by the Phillips family, so all of those points were called the Phillips Point – and so he, it was where he passing by, then it was called Phillips Point, now we call it Galloupes point, because a family called Galloupe bought many acres and built a magnificent estate there, much later than this story begins. So he thought,

“This would make a fine summer resort,” and he bought nineteen acres from Farmer Phillips for $1600, and he built the first, what it was called, Ocean House. This was the first summer hotel on the mainland of the North Shore of Boston, so Swampscott has the right to say that we had the first summer resort. Soon after, there were 16 other small, what we could call inns nowadays, but small hotels in Swampscott, because people from Boston – not very far away, because this is the day before the automobiles – that people from Boston would see how beautiful this area was, and they would come and spend the entire summer. However, that hotel burned down in 1864, the Ocean House burned down. So another Ocean House was built on Puritan Road, directly across from the entrance to Whale’s Beach. And this Ocean House said in its brochure that it just wanted to have the most respectable and exclusive clientele. Nowadays we couldn’t say that in a brochure, but in those days they said that was exactly what they wanted. And that hotel burned down in 1882. So you may be wondering why they were burning down. Well, keep in mind there were no telephones and that the fire station was way on the other end of town. So if a wooden building had a major fire, you can be sure that it burned right down to the ground before help would come.

Susan: Wow…

Mary: In those days, in those days. But in 1884, a firm owned by Ainsley built a hotel on the same property, and now they called it the New Ocean House. So this is the one we are most familiar with. And in 1902 there were extensive renovations totaling $100,000. Imagine $100,000 in 1902, what that would be today. The structure was five stories high and 450 feet long, and, it said, it was now “the most select summer hotel on the New England shore, having accommodations for 400 people.” And then in the brochure it said, “there are over 100 private baths.” So, what did the other 300 people do? And then it said, very proudly, “it is lighted throughout with electricity.”

Susan: Oooh…

Mary: So this was in 1902. And then it also had a nine-hole golf course that extended all the way down to Humphrey Street. It was a par 3 but it was a nice golf course. It also had tennis courts and a billiard room. Then it had, an 8-story fireproof annex was built, and it had the children’s dining room, and I thought this was rather interesting, because the children were allowed in the main dining room only for dessert, or for special occasions, such as their birthdays.

Susan: Oh, my!


nanny or nursemaid; the hotel provided one to sit with the children and teach them proper table manners. There were also in the area four cottages, with six to twelve rooms each, available if guests wished for private accommodations. There was a cottage for the waitresses and another cottage for the cook and the crew and other workers. Interestingly enough, at that time there were not too many local people who worked there, because it was a seasonal business. The season was from May to Labor Day. So, I think that that’s pretty much the history of our New Ocean House.

Susan: That’s quite a story. What were some of the amenities that the hotel offered back in the day – what sort of things made it special? You said the golf course; that was good.

Mary: The heyday of the New Ocean House was in the early 1900s, 1920s, and 1930s. It filled 22 acres of land and employed 150 persons during the season, and it welcomed over 50,000 guests annually. The main lobby had a ballroom, a movie theatre, a barbershop, a beauty salon, a health clinic, a coffee shop, dentist, library, and card room. And then along the edges of the lobby there were several small shops, clothing shops, flowers, gifts, antiques, a candy shop, and there were daily newspaper from all over the country so that the clientele could read their own newspaper from as far away as California. There was also a cocktail lounge, a golf shop, a photography studio, and a dance studio. And the lower area, which was not open to the public, housed a bakery, a tailor, a fish market, a housekeeping center, laundry, a butcher shop, and a print shop. And the print shop not only published the daily menus, but also who was arriving at the hotel, so that if someone was famous was coming you were made aware of it, or someone from your area. So the New Ocean House was truly a self-contained city.

Susan: Wow. You had me there when you said there was a candy shop in the lobby. (both laughing) I think that would’ve been my favorite! I like that.

Mary: Oh, one other thing I wanted to mention, too, about the garage, because automobiles were fairly new in the ’20s, and so there was a well-appointed garage on the premises where the automobiles could be cared for and stored, they could procure gasoline and be repaired, and there also were rooms for the chauffeurs at the garage. Also there were stables for horses. If you brought your own horse and wanted to go horseback riding, or if you wanted to rent a horse and go horseback riding, that was available, too, so I just wanted to add that.

Susan: That sounds like so much fun. Even a place where your chauffeur can stay, that’s fabulous. Were there large national events, were there big events held at the New Ocean House? I do know it was a nationally-known place.

Mary: Yes, well, as early as 1941 President Roosevelt and his staff stayed at the hotel when he met with Winston Churchill off the coast to discuss the Atlantic Charter. And this was quite an exciting time for the inhabitants of the town, and many people went out in boats to get a closer look at history in the making. But it wasn’t really until the ’50s and ’60s, when it no longer was a hotel for people who wanted to come and stay for the summer, although some people did, but it was more of a national convention site, and so there were many, many national conventions that were held at the New Ocean House, bringing people from not only all over the country, but from all over the world. And this was mainly I would say in the ’50s and ’60s.

Susan: Oh, interesting. It really was well known, then.

Mary: Yes.

Susan: Can you mention some of those – you mentioned President Roosevelt; that’s an impressive guest to be there – were there a few other famous people that you remember stayed there, that you’ve learned?

Mary: Well, the list of people who stayed at the New Ocean House is quite impressive. It includes Rudy Valée, who was a popular singer in the 1920s –

Susan: Oh, yes –

Mary: – and then President Calvin Coolidge, who came later to stay, to spend summers, at the White Court, he would stay at the hotel before that. Eleanor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were guests, Herbert Hoover, Helen Keller, Babe Ruth, Tallulah Bankhead, Sinclair Lewis, Walter Brennan, Harpo Marx, Lucille Ball, Guy Lombardo. Here’s an interesting fact: Rev. Billy Graham held his first appearance as an evangelist at the hotel in 1925. And John F. Kennedy held his first major fundraiser for his campaign for senator at the New Ocean House, and there were many, many more, too numerous to mention. My sister tells the story that, in the ’50s, she was at the Boston College prom, which was held at the New Ocean House, and Frank Sinatra was appearing in another area – he was staying at the hotel, I believe, and appearing somewhere in Boston – and he came back to the hotel and entered the BC prom and sang for them, and she said that was something she’ll never forget.

Susan: Oh, yeah!

Mary: So there were many, many famous people who stayed at that hotel.

Susan: Interesting; I love that. Well, can you tell us a little bit about the ending of the New Ocean House? I understand it had an unfortunate, but quite a spectacular ending.

Mary: Yes, indeed it did, Susan. Let’s see, it was on May 8, 1969, and it was one of the worst single-dwelling fires in Massachusetts history, and it destroyed this almost 100-year-old New Ocean House. The reservations clerk and the assistant to the general manager was the only employee in the main building. She called the Swampscott Fire Department at 9:53 p.m., when she smelled smoke and heard crackling to the left of the elevator opposite the front door. So the Swampscott Fire Chief Walter Champion stated that the fire seemed to have started in the extension in the back of the hotel. It quickly spread through the wood building and flames consumed the hotel within minutes after the firefighters arrived. The Beverly Times reported that at about 12:45 a.m., “the blaze took on the aspect of an inferno. Flames reached heights of better than 300 feet and were visible for hundreds of miles, literally turning night into day. Many people from town went down; spectators went down – in those days there was a horn system that blew when there was a major fire, and a lot of people had the paper in their home that told them what the number of bleeps on the horn were –

Susan: Oh, sure –

Mary: – and so when they saw New Ocean House, everybody – not everybody, but a major, major amount of people in town went down, even though the fire started at 10 p.m., and were down there watching. As I was there my dad called and told me, “get in the car, we’re going down to see the New Ocean House.” So many people were at that fire. And the sad thing about it was that there had been a water break. Fire Department Captain James Champion stated that there was a private contracting firm installing sewerage lines along Gale Road – Gale Road is right off Puritan Road – and they failed to report a broken water main to the fire department. As a result, when the firemen arrived and connected their hoses to the nearby hydrants, the water pressure was minimal. Hundreds of feet of empty outstretched hose lay flattened near the entrance to the hotel due to lack of water. All the water, he said, had come from hydrants towards the Fish House and from Humphrey Street – as far away as Humphrey St. They tried to get water from the swimming pool in front, but it had been drained for the season –

Susan: Oh –

Mary: Yes, it had been opened up. And they then went to look at the ocean for water. But it was dead low tide. And as you know, at the New Ocean House Beach, when it’s low tide, it’s so far away that they couldn’t get that water, too. So it was as a very, very sad moment. But there were over 40 communities, from as far away as Gloucester and Boston, that sent equipment, and as many as 200 firefighters battled the fire. Several were treated for smoke inhalation. So that was the sad ending to the New Ocean House. But it really was the end of an era because the New Ocean House had an effect on the town. When these people would come for the summer, they would go and buy their things on Humphrey Street and use the businesses in the town, so they really made a difference to our town. And then even during convention time, they would really use and enjoy the town of Swampscott. So when that fire brought the New Ocean House to the ground, it was headlines in papers all over the country, because so many people knew of this hotel. We have copies at the historical society of the front page of newspapers in Chicago, California, all over the country, the front page, talking about the New Ocean House fire.

Susan: That is really something. And it was – it, and then its two predecessors – that really made Swampscott; that was a really big piece of Swampscott history, and people from that era really remember it. It’s sort of faded from our awareness right now, but I’m so glad you were able to share that story with us. It was just such a very different era.

Mary: Well, you know there are so many people in town, Susan, who did not even know it existed. Because the only people, really, that would know would be the older people in our town. So newer residents coming in are not really aware of it. But I hope someday to have either a marker or something put down by the New Ocean House Beach that says “This is the site of the former New Ocean House Hotel.” Right now the only thing that is left of the hotel is a large white semicircular seating area. It’s called an exedra, and in those days it was where people would go to get out of the sun or the wind and just sit and talk, but it’s still there. It’s in terrible condition, and my hope is that we get funds from somewhere in town to have that repaired, and then maybe on the back of the exedra have a plaque that says it’s from the New Ocean House, because it’s a lovely little thing to see if you go by the park by new Ocean House Beach. That’s all that’s left of the beautiful, beautiful new Ocean House.

Susan: That and our fantastic memories of it, of all the famous people that were there, and just the different era when things were a little more gracious.

Mary: Yes, every once in a while there’s a display in the town hall with many pictures. I think talking about the New Ocean House is one thing, but you really have to see it to see how beautiful this enormous white building was in our town. So sometimes they have a display, the Historical Society will put it in a display at the town hall, and there are many, many pictures of the New Ocean House.

Susan: Definitely have to look for that. Thank you so much. That sounds fabulous. I really think I would’ve enjoyed staying there. That was just great.

Well, that wraps it up for today. Thank you, Mary, so much for sharing your stories with us. I appreciate your coming and chatting with me. And thank you also to the listeners. I hope you’ve enjoyed this talk as much as I have. So thank you, and we’ll say goodbye for now; goodbye!

Mary: Goodbye!