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Atlantic House sold in 1894 for $9,000

By Virginia L. Woodwell
[email protected]

December 28, 2005 YORK, MAINE- "This fine, spacious house, situated only eleven miles from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and easily reached by the York Harbor and Beach Railroad, and also by electric street railway which passes the doors, is in a good sanitary condition, with large, spacious sleeping rooms, smoking and reading rooms, supplied with all the various daily papers, fine large dining room, seating 100, overlooking the beach, parlor finely furnished with piano, divans, easy chairs, etc., and bath houses exclusively for the guests …"

So reads a flyer advertising the Atlantic House in its heyday, at the turn of the last century.

Built in 1887 and first opened on June 14, 1888, the Atlantic House was once a grand hotel, four stories high, with shops below, a long, open-air balcony with ocean views above, and a win-win location right in the heart of York Beach’s bustling summer business center

Now, however, it’s close to derelict, and known less for any past glory than as the more recent home, on the building’s first floor, of "Pop’s Shell Shack."

Enter: York developer Don Rivers.

Rivers bought the Atlantic House in 2004 and now plans to rejuvenate the place - as he did in 1987 (and earlier, in 1976) another of York Beach’s grand old Victorian hotels, the Ocean House - with an eye to historical accuracy and continuity.

He therefore proposes housing upscale shops on the first floor, a year-round restaurant on the second floor, and nine residential units on the other floors.

And all of that would be in general accord with patterns at the old Atlantic, which had, in addition to those ground-floor shops, a lobby and 215-seat restaurant on its second floor, and 50 "sleeping rooms" on its third and fourth floors.

Not many other details are known about the old Atlantic, but the late John Bardwell, unofficial historian of York, reported that the hotel had "ash bedroom sets, woven wire springs, hair mattresses, and blankets," that there was a new, upright piano in the hotel’s parlor, and that there were "tapestry carpets" in the rooms.

We also know that running water was piped to each of the first three floors, that the hotel had its own sewer system - effective then but unacceptable now - in which effluents were simply sluiced right into the ocean, and that there was "a Long Distance Telephone in the house."

In 1899, the advertising flyer tells us, the price for a room at the Atlantic was $2 to $2.50 per day for "transients," or between $8 and $15 per week for seasonal guests. Reduced rates applied in spring and fall, and spring apparently ran late in those days, because the lowered rates remained in effect until July 15.

In the 2001 anniversary book "350 Years as York," York historian Peter Moore identifies Clifton B. Hildreth, of Manchester, N.H., as the hotel’s builder, and reports that, at some time late in 1888, Hildreth presided over a meeting in his hotel of the York Beach Social Club, of which he was president. Moore describes the club as "a group of York Beach citizens and businessmen," and their purpose that day, to drum up money for fire-fighting equipment for their fast-growing summer community.

Their success led to the purchase of a horse-drawn hook-and-ladder wagon and 12 leather buckets - and, ironically, the Atlantic House would prove one of the beneficiaries of their foresight when fire broke out in the hotel at 3:30 on the morning of Sept. 7, 1905.

The fire was discovered burning in several places in the hotel, Moore reported in this paper nine years ago in his "Unknown History of York" column, with "the kitchen … one mass of flames," fire "burning through the roof," and spreading throughout the building. It would take almost two hours for volunteer firefighters from both the York Beach and York Village fire departments to extinguish the blaze, and that was made possible, Moore noted, not only through the "almost superhuman efforts" of the firefighters, but thanks to no wind and, most significantly, the contribution of water supplied by the town’s new water system, with hydrants, installed just nine years before, in May of 1896.

Fortunately, Moore wrote, the hotel was closed for the season when that fire occurred, and fortunately, too, the building was insured. It would be rebuilt.

Reports about the fire give us the name of one of the shop tenants then: S.S. Dowaliby and Company, dealers in oriental goods and fruits, who suffered extensive water damage on that day.

From other sources we know that Dr. Hawke’s Pharmacy, which also maintained shops in York Village and York Harbor, was an Atlantic House tenant for a time, and that, in 1915, the hotel boasted a five-alley bowling alley, where guests could bowl for between 10 and 15 cents a string - and where pin boys, in the days before automation, were paid two cents a string.

According to Moore and others, ownership of the Atlantic House changed several times. The hotel was sold in 1894 for $9,000, and it went, at auction in the fall of 1904, to a group of buyers, for $5,600.

"For a number of years," Moore wrote, "it was leased to E. S. Trafton and son, of Lynn, Massachusetts."

On Aug. 10, 1910, a guest at the hotel sent a postcard picturing it to a friend in East Providence, R.I., and reported that she (or he) was "simply eating and resting," and "feeling better," a reference, probably, to the fact that the Atlantic House and other seaside hotels like it were capitalizing on a widespread belief, current then, that proximity to the ocean, and ocean bathing, had curative effects.

The same tourist wrote, "I did not get the auto ride," and she twice underlined "auto" - a reference to the novelty of cars at that time, and an index to the fact that big, seaside hotels like the Atlantic came into being on the coattails of major changes in the nation’s economy and modes of transportation. Changes in the economy brought leisure to the middle class; trains (that came to York in 1887 and left in 1925), and electric trolley cars (that flourished in York between 1897 and 1913), brought people with leisure to York Beach - and brought them right to the very doorstep of the Atlantic House.

Inevitably, the arrival of the "auto" in the ‘teens and 1920s contributed to spelling doom for the trains, the trolley cars, and the big resort hotels, because it freed individuals up to go anywhere and elsewhere.

Ironically, one legacy of that triumph is the fact that a major hurdle faced by developer Rivers in his efforts to restore the Atlantic House now is a regulation requiring that sufficient car parking spaces be available to accommodate his guests.

The hurdle is prompting efforts to find broader solutions to "the car problem," including a return to public transportation - a return that would bring the restoration back full-circle.

Stay tuned for updates in this paper about meetings and movement on the Atlantic House renovations.

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