Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, a restoration success story, recalls the elegance of bygone days

A palace in New Hampshire: Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, a restoration success story, recalls the elegance of bygone days

Tom Bross

LET’S TIME-TRAVEL BACK TO 1902 and play some wishful make-believe. Residing in Philadelphia–or perhaps Boston or New York City–you and spouse are quite comfortably wealthy during that 20th century’s Gilded Age preceding federal income taxation and the two world wars. Air-conditioning hasn’t yet been invented, so urban heat waves made a summertime escape to New England’s cool mountain country a desirable notion.

In those northerly regions, several grand hotels have been built for people exactly like you. Railroads–the Boston & Maine, the Portland & Ogdensburg–make them accessible. You’re journeying to upstate New Hampshire, destined for what was then the brand-new Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, situated on a ridge overlooking a broad river valley surrounded by 18,000-acre fringes of the White Mountain National Forest. At $20 a night, room rates are four times pricier than elsewhere in the region–a good-enough indicator that you’ve indeed chosen an elite establishment. Perks, ahead of their time, include a telephone system and electric power plant. As a gesture to workaholic bankers and brokers, a stock ticker is wired directly to Wall Street.

Instead of a train ride in the comfort of a first-class Pullman car, vacationers might decide to don caps, dusters, and goggles and come by chauffeured automobile. The resort can handle their needs, having already installed garage facilities in this early period of the “horseless-carriage” age. So attendants and mechanics are prepared to grease, wash, and wax guests’ ritzy Rolls Royces, Pierce-Arrows, Packards, and Stanley Steamers.

The edifice is aptly named because its 900-foot-long colonnaded, wraparound veranda features a splendid eastward view of the Presidential Range’s 6,288-foot Mt. Washington. White wicker armchairs and planter boxes overflowing with geraniums look purposely old-fashioned. Vintage embellishments, in fact, go a long way toward explaining the appeal of this imposing four-seasons vacation haven.

Thanks to painstaking restoration, finely crafted details are evident today in the public areas. For construction that got underway in 1900, New Hampshire-born entrepreneur Joseph Stickney, the original owner and developer, imported 250 Italians–adept at stonecutting, masonry, plasterwork, and stained-glass artistry–to do the job. Spanish Renaissance Revival is the architectural motif, distinguished by white facades and topped by a red roof. Facilities in today’s 200 guest rooms have been fully modernized; the building’s central climate-control system started humming a year ago.

What began as a palazzo-inspired main edifice (designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986) has since been expanded into a four-part complex. The Bretton Arms is a circa-1896 country inn with 34 guest rooms and a fireside dining room. For contrast, the contemporary, 50-room Lodge at Bretton Woods contains–in addition to Darby’s Diner for casual meals–an indoor heated pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna beneath a skylit cathedral ceiling. The TownHomes, ideal for couples and families, are scattered throughout the resort’s acreage. They consist of fully furnished one-to-five-bedroom accommodations, plus such amenities as hearthside living/dining areas, private outdoor decks, and fully equipped kitchens, plus washers and dryers, and lockers for sports gear.

It’s the visually striking palazzo, however, that merits primary attention. The building was sufficiently spacious and prestigious to host a worldwide delegation of 44 governmental dignitaries, gathered here to make influential decisions about stabilizing and regulating global currencies during the three-week United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in July, 1944.

The lobby’s long corridor leads to the Grand Ballroom–used for wedding receptions, Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, theatrical performances, concerts, art exhibitions, and other special occasions. Guests strolling back and forth usually stop to admire the Conservatory. Graced by a Steinway piano, this semicircular space epitomizes discreet Edwardian stylishness. Complementing a painted ceiling tableau, garlands and floral plasterwork embellish the Ionic columns.

Four-course evening meals are served in the octagonal Main Dining Room, illuminated by crystal chandeliers and Tiffany stained-glass clerestory windows. Also overhead, a musicians’ gallery can accommodate a 22-piece orchestra. In an adjacent wing, added in 1906, the Mount Washington Ensemble plays music for dancing in the Sun Dining Room, brightened by its pink and white color scheme. Too fancy for you? If so, head downstairs to the covered terrace on the building’s backside, where the staff at casual Stickney’s Restaurant & Lounge prepares a buffet (barbecue in summertime) each afternoon and evening.

A resort wouldn’t truly be a resort without recreational activities. Golf made its White Mountains debut 110 years ago, so Stickney and associates were quick to capitalize on the sport’s newfound popularity by laying out a six-hole mini-course. Today, two challenging courses–the Mount Washington and the Mount Pleasant–total 27 holes, augmented by a 300-yard driving range and 18-hole putting green. Volvo International Tournaments in 1973-74–starring Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Rod Laver, and Bobby Riggs–made Bretton Woods familiar to tennis enthusiasts. Amateurs like us lob and volley on a dozen clay courts. Horseback riders saddle up at restored Victorian stables, while parents and kids plop into the outdoor and indoor swimming pools. Bicyclists pedal on 60 miles of marked trails winding through the National Forest.

When snow blankets New Hampshire highlands and valleys, Bretton Woods becomes a full-fledged ski resort. Slopes on two summits are streaked with 88 downhill runs; the terrain’s vast, scenic system of groomed trails exhilarates cross-country skiers. A bona-fide international champion directs the overall program: 2002 Olympics silver medalist Bode Miller, who’s from rustic little Easton, a few miles away.

You don’t have to be a downhill racer to experience high-altitude sensations. From its base station six miles east of the resort, the steam-powered Mount Washington Cog Railway has been huffing, puffing, and clanking up to the mountain’s observatory since 1869. The old-timer makes its ascent via a threemile-long “Jacob’s Ladder” trestle with a 37-degree gradient–the world’s second-steepest after the mountain-climbing Pilatus rail route beyond Lucerne, Switzerland.

Sure, Swiss alpine vistas are magnificent. But so are panoramas from the loftiest peak in the U.S. Northeast. Looking down on the green landscape and the Ammonoosuc River’s blue curviness, you’ll spot–in miniature from this distance–Bretton Woods’ white, red-rootEd palazzo, restored to its Gilded Age glory.


* Name: Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods

* Owner: MWH Partnership

* Location: Northern New Hampshire at the base of Mount Washington, highest peak in the Northeast; 90 miles from Portland, Maine, and 165 miles from Boston. Surrounded by 18,000 acres of White Mountain National Forest.

* Accommodations: 200 guest rooms in a grand hotel built in 1902; also 34 rooms at the 1896 Bretton Arms Country Inn, 50 rooms at The Lodge at Bretton Woods, and one- to five-bedroom townhomes.

* Facilities and activities: Heated indoor and outdoor pools; 27 holes of golf; 12 red clay tennis courts: stables for horseback riding; carriage rides; hiking and biking trails; fly fishing in the Ammonoosuc River: racquetball; croquet; horseshoes; volleyball; badminton; game room; children’s programs; alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing; 13 restaurants and lounges.

* Rates: Rates in the main building start at $130 per person per night, dinner and breakfast included; from $65 in the Bretton Arms Country Inn, with breakfast.

* Contact: Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, Box 302, Bretton Woods, NH 03575; (800) 258-0330;

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