Canada Association of Tourism Employees

Grand staircases resulting in nowhere

The Ocean House is a large waterfront Victorian-style hotel originally built in 1868 on Bluff Avenue in the Watch Hill Historic District of Westerly, Rhode Island.

  1. The original Ocean House was a central building in the Watch Hill Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  2. The closure of the original hotel included the lack of modern amenities, its dilapidated condition and non-compliance with current building codes.
  3. Big stairs lead nowhere and rainwater seeped through the walls.

The original hotel from 1868 closed in 2003; It was demolished in 2005 and a new building opened in the same location in 2010, keeping much of the shape and appearance of the original building as well as the original name. Both the original and its reconstruction are known for their sprawling Victorian architecture and distinctive yellow siding.

The original Ocean House was the last Victorian-era waterfront hotel on mainland Rhode Island.

The Ocean House was originally built in 1868. It was smaller than the other Watch Hill hotels, but has expanded through numerous additions over the years. The original Ocean House was a central building in the Watch Hill Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In March 2004, Girouard Associates of New Canaan, Connecticut, bought the property from the heirs of the Louis D. Miller family, who had owned the hotel since 1938. Girouard Associates intended to demolish the Ocean House and build five large houses by the sea, but a protest ensued. Ultimately, a new buyer was found, and while the spirit of the original building was retained, the actual building was not.

Factors related to the closure of the original Ocean House included the lack of modern amenities, its dilapidated condition, and non-compliance with current building codes. The original Ocean House was open seasonally, open about three months a year, and the building had no heating, air conditioning, or ventilation. In the last few years of its operation, the upper two floors were unused and only 59 of the original 159 rooms were usable. The aging facility lacked the amenities, service functions, exit requirements, accessibility requirements, and parking spaces necessary to meet modern regulations. A newspaper article described its final state: “Big stairs don’t lead anywhere. Rainwater seeps through the walls and runs through wired gutters. The oak elevator is broken. “

The 138 year old building did not comply with the applicable building and life safety regulations. The wooden structure had been compromised by the indiscriminate installation of electricity, gas and plumbing, and subsequent remodeling of the rooms with private bathrooms. Rhode Island fire regulations were revised and more strictly enforced following the 2003 station nightclub fire, making the shortcomings at the Ocean House insurmountable. Compliance with current life safety standards, including those for hurricane-rated windows with new frames, a new concrete foundation with full-length steel lashing straps, the removal of all leaded interior and exterior paint, and the removal of interior mold that requires the interior to be demolished.

In 2004, the Ocean House was not allowed to open due to code deficiencies; The original hotel was discontinued and sold in 2003. The community learned in March 2004 that an outside contractor was planning to demolish Ocean House and build five houses in its place. Therefore, the organizers started a campaign to save the building and get public access to the sea and the beach. These organizers included representatives from Preserve Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, and the National Trust. Another buyer was found who did not consider it economically and physically feasible to make the building functionally and legally compliant, but he promised to rebuild it from scratch. The original building was demolished and a new building erected on site.

The project architects encountered resistance with the demolition of the Ocean House, but successfully campaigned for its reconstruction. They proposed a building modeled on the original Ocean House, which peaked around 1908. This would allow for a 49-room hotel commensurate with the adjacent streets while expanding towards the beach where 23 condos could be housed. It would also make it possible to have the conveniences and service functions that could make the project functional and economically feasible.

The original Ocean House structure was demolished in December 2005 and the subsequent facility opened in 2010.

The new design is 50,000 square meters larger than the original at 156,000 square meters. It reconstructs much of the original mass and restores some of the original details that were removed during the ongoing operation of the facility, such as the original mansard roof and the fireplace in the lobby. It also includes new elements, including underground facilities and two new wings extending from the main building, shielding neighboring residential areas from hotel activities.

The original layout has been documented and the overall dimensions and heights have been retained, including the size and location of the windows. Actual parts of the original building have been salvaged and the design replicates columns, capitals and woodwork. Materials that can be reached by humans are wood, while details that are out of reach are made of easier-care synthetic materials.

The new complex has 49 guest rooms and 23 residential condominiums as well as meeting rooms, spa, sports, pool, fitness center and restaurants. The design also takes into account service functions that are required for a modern facility: modern kitchens, loading docks, machine rooms, requirements for fire protection (e.g. unnecessary stairs) and staff rooms.

Stanley Turkel was named Historian of the Year 2020 by Historic Hotels of America, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s official program for which he was named in 2015 and 2014. Turkel is the most widely published hotel advisor in the United States states. He runs his hotel consultancy as an expert in hotel matters, offers asset management and hotel franchising advice. He is certified as a Master Hotel Supplier Emeritus by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. [email protected] 917-628-8549

His new book “Great American Hotel Architects Volume 2” has just been published.

Other published hotel books:

  • Great American Hoteliers: Hotel Pioneers (2009)
  • Built to last: 100+ year old New York hotels (2011)
  • Built to last: 100+ year old hotels east of the Mississippi (2013)
  • Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt, Oscar des Waldorfes (2014)
  • Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Hotel Pioneers (2016)
  • Built to last: 100+ year old hotels west of the Mississippi (2017)
  • Hotel Mavens Volume 2: Henry Morrison Flagler, Henry Bradley Plant, Carl Graham Fisher (2018)
  • Great American Hotel Architects Volume I (2019)
  • Hotel Mavens: Volume 3: Bob and Larry Tisch, Ralph Hitz, Cesar Ritz, Curt Strand

All of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse by visiting and clicking on the book title.

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