The Cottager | Hotel Aspinwall: Ghosts of grandeur

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LENOX — On a clear day, with the aid of a telescope, it is said that the view from the top of Hotel Aspinwall stretched as far as Worcester in one direction and to Albany, N.Y., and the Hudson River in the other.

Five stories tall and 1,400 feet above sea level, Hotel Aspinwall offered views that stretched for miles. From its perch above Lenox, surrounded by the Woolsey Woods, it also offered privacy for the elite who stayed there — ambassadors, statesmen, movie stars, foreign dignitaries and royalty, the country's elite and at least one president.

It's lofty seat would also save the surrounding woods and homes during the early hours of April 25, 1931, when a police officer on his front porch a mile away, spotted flames rising from the hotel. Officer Timothy Dunn would raise the alarm that would bring firefighters from Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Pittsfield to battle a blaze that would leave a $1 million loss in its wake.

Early beginnings

Three decades earlier, 410 acres that once belonged to the Aspinwall and Woolsey families would be sold to New York attorney and financier Gen. Thomas A Hubbard and his partners who had plans for a grand hotel. The land had previously been sold to three businessmen, who had intended to carve it up into a community similar to Tuxedo Park, N.Y.

Built over the course of 15 months, the hotel was designed by Allen & Vance of Pittsfield and built by a local company out of Lenox. It first opened its doors to the press in late June 1902, just ahead of the summer season and the nuptials of Lila Vanderbilt Sloane to W. B. Osgood Field. According to reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the hotel had 250 guest rooms, a total of 310 rooms in all and could accommodate up to 400 guests.

A ballroom at the south end of the building was said to seat 500 guests and a 28-foot wide piazza extended on three sides to allow for extra dance floor. A rotunda at the end of the main corridor was host to concerts by the hotel orchestra. But perhaps the most written about feature of the hotel was its veranda, a total of 11,000 feet that wrapped around the building on all four sides.

The grounds, which remained open to the public as they were during the time of the Woolsey family, were filled with 10 miles of motor and riding trails. Golfing was possible at the nearby Lenox Country Club and the hotel also had a boat house.

The Last Days

As the Gilded Age came to a close and vacations at resorts in Catskills and Adirondack mountains became more fashionable, the era of places like Hotel Aspinwall began to wane. New managers came and went, as did plans to extend the hotel season into the winter months. For the final 16 years of its existence, the hotel had been managed by Leo A Tworoger and his son-in-law, John Stanley. On the fateful morning of April 25, 1931, Tworoger and Stanley were in Hamilton, Bermuda, where they managed the Princess hotel during the winter season.

The pair had just renewed their lease for three additional years and had ordered $12,000 worth of work for the property, including a private golf course and additional horse and car trails.

It was 1 a.m. when Officer Timothy Dunn spotted the flames that would signal the end of the hotel with its fine maple floors and expensive oriental rugs.

"The hilltop seemed to be completely enveloped in flames — shooting upwards and licking the ebony heavens with their carmine tongues. The sparks flew in all directions, showering the town and threatening hundreds of homes," an Eagle reporter on the scene wrote. "In the crowd who watched were noctambulists who had not gone to bed, out to parties and dances, they were homeward bound when attracted by the spectacular blaze."

Although Hotel Aspinwall was built with its own water supply, the lines up to the hostelry had been emptied to avoid a winter freeze. By the time firefighters made it to the top of the hill, connecting hoses together to pump water to the top, the blaze had consumed the entire structure and had moved on to the servant dormitories. Their efforts were spent on saving two cabins and the garage and stables from burning, as well as making sure the dry timber woods did not go up in flames.

Although an official cause was never determined, it was reported the fire, which started on the veranda, was most likely caused by a smoldering cigarette left behind by "parkers" — young couples who would seek out the isolated hotel grounds for trysts.

The Ruins of Aspinwall

Hotel Aspinwall was never rebuilt. The land was sold off and logged for a time. Then in 1956, some 360 acres, including the ruins of the hotel were offered to the town for $12,000. The woods would once again welcome the public, this time as Kennedy Park. Here, today, the remains of the grand hotel can be found — walls covered in vines; bricks and marble slabs coated in dust and dirt; water pipes poking out of moss and grass mounds — ghosts of a time of grandeur.

The Cottager is an award-winning column that runs biweekly in Berkshires Week and the Shires of Vermont. Reach Jennifer Huberdeau at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com




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