Its porches and windows frame Edgartown harbor and the surrounding landscape, drawing visitors from around the Island and the world. It is a favorite spot to sit back and watch the sailboats in the harbor, the changing skies throughout the different seasons and the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
For many, the Harbor View Hotel epitomizes a style of life on the Vineyard. But it was a long and bumpy road to the unofficial title of Grand Dame of Edgartown.
Following the collapse of the whaling industry in the 19th century, Edgartown struggled financially for decades. However, in 1891 Edgartown began to redefine itself as a summer resort community, following in the footsteps of Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs). The Harbor View Hotel led the way. Over the next 125 years, the hotel expanded, went in and out of solvency, and changed hands many times.
Harbor View: The Hotel That Saved a Town, published by Vineyard Stories, explores the hotel’s unique role in Island history, and memorializes the many people and groups that have contributed to its survival. The book was commissioned by the owners of Harbor View in anticipation of the hotel’s 125th anniversary in 2016.
Robin Kirk, president of Scout Hotels, the management arm of Scout Real Estate Capital which owns the Harbor View, said he was aware of “remarkably little” of the hotel’s history before reading the book, and was pleased with the outcome. “It’s much more than a coffee table book,” he said. “It’s actually a good read.”
The book was written by Nis Kildegaard, with photographs by Alison Shaw, and includes many archival images. Ms. Shaw’s photography is featured in seven other books published by Vineyard Stories, including three coming out this summer.
“For me, doing books is the ultimate,” Ms. Shaw said. “I love the time, I love the in-depth, I love the finished product, I love the whole thing. I love exploring something that thoroughly.”
But the Harbor View book was something new for Mr. Kildegaard.
“It’s the most heavily produced project I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “It’s wonderful because you are reading about one specific thing but you are also reading about Martha’s Vineyard. And I think that’s what I tried to do with the Harbor View book, tell the story of the evolution of Edgartown as a summer resort through the lens of the place that started it all.”
He said there were many surprises along the way. The hotel went bankrupt in its second year, for example, and was bought out for $6,600 by a “straw buyer” who sold it back to some of the original owners for one dollar and later went to jail for torching his own hotel, the Wesley House, which he had insured for $14,000.
“Every time you turn over another rock there is another story about the history of the Harbor View,” Mr. Kildegaard said.
For Ms. Shaw the experience was also expansive. It allowed her to apply her talent for landscapes and for capturing moods, since the hotel experience was so closely tied to its surroundings. “It wasn’t just documenting a hotel,” she said.
Paradoxically, she found herself immersed in leisure, but in the context of work. “It was finding this experience of being a summer person on the Vineyard that I used to be when I was a kid, until I started working here,” she said. “This place to me now, I love it, but it doesn’t represent relaxing and being on vacation.
“By the end of doing that book, I thought, this is my favorite undiscovered place on the whole Island for really savoring summer. Just to sit on the front porch there and watch the boats in the harbor and watch the lighthouse,” she said. “It epitomizes summer on Martha’s Vineyard to me, and I wouldn’t have said that going into it.”
In the two years they worked on the book, Ms. Shaw and Mr. Kildegaard never crossed paths. “Usually when I’m working on a book, we’re working in parallel universes, but the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” Ms. Shaw said. “I was telling the story as I saw it and he was telling the story as he saw it.”
Mr. Kildegaard spent months in the Gazette archives, discovering story after story about the hotel. The Gazette had supported the enterprise from the beginning, he said, as a way to jumpstart the economy. It even reported on a public contest in 1891 to name the new hotel. Some losing entries were Hotel Mizpah, Hotel Nashaquitsa, The Montezuma and Hotel Quinomica.
The text for the book eventually grew from an expected 11,000 words to closer to 35,000.
“This book could have been 60,000 words,” Mr. Kildegaard said. “It’s actually an enterprise that has been well documented and is filled with wonderful stories, some of which we just happened on quite by accident.”
The search for material extended to eBay, where Mr. Kildergaard discovered a stash of Associated Press photographs of Harbor View chef Henry Haller, who eventually went on to become executive chef at the White House for five presidents.
Jan Pogue, owner of Vineyard Stories, said nobody really knew what would turn up, partly because the hotel itself had no archival material.
“They’ve gone through so many ownerships that little things that you would expect from a hotel that age have just disappeared,” Ms. Pogue said. “So it was like a mystery novel for us to begin to peel back the layers and put out a call to the Island to give us different pieces.”
The final stage of the project involved gathering the stories of Islanders and others who were directly involved with the hotel, including Bob Carroll, who owned the hotel from 1965 to 1989 and still lives in the third-floor penthouse that he developed in the 1970s, and S. Bailey Norton of North Water street, who remembers playing on the hotel’s fire escapes during the 1920s and 30s.
Throughout its history — including its early bankruptcy, the Great Depression and periods of mismanagement and neglect — what kept the hotel going was the understanding that without it, Edgartown would be a very different place.
“Local ownership, that has always been the successful component of the hotel,” said Ms. Pogue. “As soon as it got away from that, and it did a couple of times, it began to go downhill. And each time it was pulled back by local ownership.”
Mr. Kildegaard believes that the current owners, a consortium of Island visitors, some of whom own houses within shouting distance of the hotel, understand that importance. “These are not people who are in it for the money,” he said.
Robin Kirk said that he is glad that the story of the Harbor View Hotel is finally being told.
“It is part of the fabric that is the community, and I think people like to understand how that fabric is woven,” he said. “It is a story that belongs to all our guests and all our employees and our owners, and people who have been involved in the hotel in the past. I think people really want to know and read that story.”
Author Nis Kildegaard will discuss Harbor View: The Hotel That Saved a Town at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 15, at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, 59 School street, Edgartown.