Homes Away from Home :: New England’s Historic Hotels of America
The recent Boston gathering by member establishments of the "Historic Hotels of America," took place over lunch at the newly renovated restaurant Oak Long Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel.
Historic Hotels of America is a "program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation," media notes for the event explained, which "identifies quality hotels that have faithfully maintained their historic integrity, architecture, and ambience."
Properties must meet specific criteria to be accepted into the ranks of the Historic Hotels of America: "[A] hotel must be at least 50 years old, listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or recognized as having historic significance." In other words, if you're looking for a hotel experience that lies outside of and beyond the cloned, nondescript look and feel of many chain hotels, the 230+ properties that belong to the program offer plenty for you.
Looking Good at 100
That includes the venue for the program’s recent Boston media event and luncheon. The Fairmont Copley Plaza, which has been in operation since 1912, has greeted its centennial with a major renovation to the tune of $20 million that includes a new HVAC system, a new 3,000 square foot health club facility, upgrades to all the hotel’s guest accommodations, and a major overhaul of Oak Kitchen + Long Bar, the very restaurant in which our sumptuous lunch was being served.
This was, as one attendee noted, a bold move indeed: The restaurant had reopened a mere 2 days previously; its renovations included taking down a wall, redecorating, creating a lighter color palette and hanging new, less light-blocking drapes, generally allowing for more light and a greater sense of spaciousness... and, of course, preserving some spectacular original details like the wooden ceiling with its gorgeously carved panels, another section of ceiling with ornate plaster moldings, and a few ship’s prow style moldings along the walls.
The team behind the restaurant’s redesign had worked extensively on Hollywood film sets. They brought this expertise to the task of creating a vibrant new look and feel for the space while simultaneously preserving and celebrating its original style elements. This included replacing the original chandeliers with similar, though new, chandeliers--and offsetting them with utterly contemporary new light elements. In other respects, past and present coexist in an almost reverential manner: At one point in the restaurant’s history the place had featured a "carousel bar" that gradually rotated. The renovation uncovered the tracks in the floor that the carousel had once followed, but rather than rip the tracks out or cover them up once again, the designers worked around them, allowing them to remain visible, a subtle and intriguing hearkening back to earlier times.
Oak Boards and Delicacies
The kitchen provided us with three handsome courses. First was a charcuterie, which, as a hotel publicist at our table pointed out, followed one general theme of the establishment: About a third of the Oak menu is designed for sharing, and the restaurant’s furnishings reflect the notion, with long benches and small, intimate tables. (There were some chairs, too: Super-heavy, for some reason, and sort of regal.)
The charcuterie platter, served on an oak board (actually, the name of the dish was just that: "Oak Board") was loaded with mounds of smoked speck, artisan salame, Fra-mani porchetta, Salumeria Biellese sopressata, and hunks of cheese: raw cow’s milk cheese; a sharp, nicely aged Cabot Clothbound cheddar; Berkshire bleu cheese... delectable! There were also olives, pots of hearty mustard, and a small pot of peach chutney. Flatbreads accompanied the charcuterie, served on grey slabs of slate, but they weren’t meant to hold the cheeses and meat; these flatbreads came pre-loaded. The Pulled Pork flatbread featured pickled grapes, smoked cheddar, salted caramel onions, and sweet corn; the Summer flatbread boasted the always tasty combination of tomato and basil, together with burrata cheese. The ingredients used for the generous toppings made them more like little pizzas than anything.
The conversation over the charcuterie started off with Lisa Burns, the Director of Marketing Communications for Boston’s own Lenox, "the original boutique hotel," located not far from the Fairmont Copley Plaza. The Lenox certainly has the pedigree to belong to the ranks of Historic Hotels of America, having been built in 1900 for the then-astronomical sum of just over $1 million. The Lenox remains an early, if not the last, word in Beaux-Arts splendor; Its Dome Room famously features a gilded dome over an elegant ballroom, and that’s just one of five events spaces, not to mention the hotel’s three restaurants.
The conversation continued with a publicist from Hanover Inn, a hotel owned by Dartmouth College that "[overlooks] the Dartmouth Green" from a location where there have been "lodging establishments since 1780," according to a Hanover Inn flier.
Not unlike the Copley Fairmont Hotel, the Hanover Inn has been undergoing an extensive renovation process: $40 million in this case, for a hotel with 108 rooms--far fewer rooms than the Fairmont’s 383 rooms and suites. "You can imagine the result," the Hanover’s marketing director told us.
The Hanover has more to recommend it than the distinction of being the only hotel on the campus of Dartmouth, which is an Ivy League school. Its proximity to the Hopkins Center of Performing Arts, as well as a number of other museums and cultural venues, guarantees that guests need never be bored. The athletically inclined also will enjoy golf at the Hanover Country Club, as well as hiking (the Appalachian Trail passes by not far away), kayaking, skiing, and other activities.
Just before the waiter appeared to take our entrée orders, the General Manager stopped by. "How’s everything?" he asked.
A chorus of pleased and admiring comments volleyed back, and he smiled.
"Some of you here are journalists?" he asked. "Be kind to us!" he added, with a grin. That would not be hard to do; the space is beautiful, the atmosphere welcoming, and the food thus far had been delectable.
Enter the Entrée
Indeed, the entrées all looked tempting: There was Nova Scotia halibut on offer, served with lemon herb butter and seasonal market vegetables; a skirt steak salad; a "Market Vegetable Sandwich," a roasted chicken salad sub, Powder Point Oysters Rockefeller in a Pernod cream with garlicky baby spinach, Jonah Crab au Gratin, "BCT" (bacon, cheddar, and tomato) sandwich, tagliatelle ("hand cut," no less).
It was a tough selection to make, but one item leapt out for me: the "Oak Burger," made with aged rib eye steak and topped with maple smoked cheddar and a toothsome sauce of onion aioli, not to mention a high stack of thin-cut onion rings pinned to the bun. To the side there sat a little bucket of French fries and an accompanying pot of ketchup. I ordered my burger medium, and it turned up perfect: juicy, tasty, and just pink enough inside, just the way I like it.
I’d ordered a glass of Merlot at the start of the meal and it lasted me all through the appetizer and entrée. Our waiter kept our glasses full with sparkling Perrier or, alternatively, bottled still water.
The hotel reps changed tables with every course, so the entrée arrived along with new partners for stimulating conversation. I found myself sitting next to Norma Probst, the Director of Marketing for Cranwell, a resort, spa, and golf club in Lenox, Massachusetts... or, as Norma pointed out, "In the Berkshires."
I confessed to never having been to the Berkshires.
"Oh, you must come!" Norma said, proceeding to detail how beautiful and relaxing it is there, how much undeveloped land and open space one might enjoy, and how much culture is located in the Berkshires, including Tanglewood, "the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra," not to mention the Capital Steps being on hand throughout the summer (until Sept. 2) to delight audiences with their sharp, funny election-year satire.
In addition to being a member of Historic Hotels of America, Cranwell also has the distinction of being Massachusetts’ sole member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The Cranwell spa, now in operation now for ten years, offers a menu of massage therapies (Swedish, deep tissue, hot stone, aromatherapy), facials, and body treatments (anyone for the "Carita Soft Satin Skin Buff?").
To get in the mood for some relaxing bodywork, a guest might make use of Cranwell’s 18-hole golf course... complete, for those wishing to sharpen their game, with personalized instruction. Swimming and tennis are other athletic options.
Across the table from me sat Reilly Fies, a native of Hershey, PA, the hometown of the chocolate company... and, as it turns out, the Public Relations Coordinator for the Hotel Hershey, established in the 1930s by the confectioner who established the chocolate company, Milton Hershey. Indeed, the entire town was created by Mr. Hershey as a community for his company’s employees. The hotel could be a small community in its own right, with its 276 guest rooms and suites, 48 of which are not in the main building, but rather in a number of "Woodside Cottages."
The Spa at the Hotel Hershey celebrates those sweet beginnings by including chocolate in its treatments. The hotel’s website notes that the spa is "affectionately known as The Chocolate Spa, where chocolate inspires innovative treatments like the Whipped Cocoa Bath, Chocolate Bean Polish, and the Chocolate Fondue Wrap." Not to mention the delicious-sounding "Cocoa Facial Experience," which boasts "An edible dark chocolate mask." What does one say to that, except maybe "Yes, please!"?
But the Chocolate Spa is no mere candy land. It’s also home to a brand of elegance that’s downright Old World, according to the press notes that Reilly provided. "The three-story, 40,000-square-foot Spa is a full-service, European-style spa overlooking the Hotel’s formal gardens and reflecting pools."
The Hotel Hershey takes pride in being located in "The Sweetest Place on Earth," so much so that those words comprise the company’s trademarked slogan.
Spoiled for Choice
And speaking of sweets... The dessert menu was another example of being spoiled for choice. How to choose between the Vermont Crème Fraiche cheesecake with its hibiscus poached cherries heaped on top and then trailing off across the plate like a comet’s tail? Or the warm peach and summer berry crisp, which comes served in a mini-skillet (but still makes for a huge helping!) and is topped with a hefty scoop of Tahiti vanilla bean gelato?
The waiter recommended the chocolate whoopie pie ice cream sandwich made with Belgian chocolate gelato, but those looking for a good digestif could also opt for one of the menu’s half-dozen cordials, including Grand Marnier, Sambuca, and Bailey’s.
I went for the middle ground and chose the chocolate pudding parfait; after the meal I’d just eaten I wanted something light. The parfait was just the ticket: The pudding was milk chocolate and the whipped cream was so light it almost didn’t even seem to be there. I enjoyed a cup of black tea with dessert.
Another treat that came along with the dessert course was a fresh round of table-hopping by the hotel reps. Stephanie Gravalese-Wood appeared at our table, bursting with exuberance to tell us about The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is also in the Berkshires.
"Oh, you haven’t been to The Berkshires?" Stephanie, who is the Inn’s Marketing and Communications Manager, said to me. "You must come!" She proceeded to convince me, starting with the Inn’s connection to a well-known and best-beloved American artist. "You might have heard of Norman Rockwell...?"
"Granny Industrial Chic"
Even if I had not, the Inn’s Executive Chef, Brian J. Alberg, would be enough to generate excitement. Alberg has adopted the farm-to-table ethos, coordinating with local farmers for his ingredients. Then there are the accommodations: quaint yet chic, the rooms sparkle with New England touches (plates on the walls; antique teapots; upholstered bedsteads (that match the comfy chairs, no less!). But these are also 21st century accommodations, with flat screen TVs and Keurig coffee makers at the ready, especially in the newly added Maple Glen guesthouse, the newest and largest of the Inn’s eight Village Guest Houses.
A little more modern still is The Red Lion Inn’s sister property, The Porches Inn, right next door to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. "These rooms are decorated in Granny Industrial Chic," Stephanie told me, referencing the paint-by-number pictures and other vintage appointments, which sit cheek-by-jowl with in-room DVD players and modern furniture.
The best of the old; the best of the new. It sounds like a recipe for a comfortable home away from home.