The Cliff House Resort & Spa
On April 14, 2014, it was announced that fourth-generation owner Kathryn Weare sold the historic Cliff House Resort & Spa to the Rockbridge hotel investment firm.
Sometimes the history of a place and of a family extend so far across time that their identities intertwine and become one. Such a place is The Cliff House, and such a family is Weare.
The story begins in 1866. The Civil War had just ended, and the nation turned its attention to reconstruction and rebuilding its spirit. One of the North's military necessities during the war was to standardize railway gauges. This laid the foundation for a coordinated railroad system. The Boston and Maine Railroad was about to add a spur to York, Maine, and this news was not lost on Elsie Jane, the wife of Captain Theodore Weare. She invested their money to buy Bald Head Cliff and began planning a resort. Her brother, Captain Charles Perkins, built The Cliff House with wood from the family lots which was milled in their sawmill on Beach Street in Ogunquit.
The energetic Elsie Jane opened The Cliff House in 1872, ran the hotel and the farm, invested in real estate and managed all the family businesses. She raised seven children and took care of Theodore, who became an invalid suffering from consumption. Elsie Jane's formula for success was simple: clean rooms, fine foods (provided from the adjacent Weare farm), fresh air, personal hospitality, all in an incomparable scenic location on top of Bald Head Cliff. Rates for the 1872 premier season were $6.00 per week, per person, and included all three meals.
The Cliff House soon became the favorite resort of fine families of the time: the Biddles of Philadelphia, the Havermeyers of New York, and the Cabots and Lodges of Boston. Its reputation spread across the Atlantic attracting guests from as far away as England and the Continent. Guests entertained themselves with card parties, croquet and horseshoe pitching. The Cliff House offered a peaceful retreat and an experience in nature: verdant lawns, wild roses, an enormous expanse of sky and the ever-changing sea stretching below on all three sides.
About 1910, Elsie Jane, then in her late 70's turned over control of The Cliff House to her son, Charles. He was fit for the task and embarked on a modernization campaign which resulted in such luxuries as indoor plumbing and electric lights. In time, he even added a bowling alley to supplement homemade entertainment such as amateur theatricals. To help meet the demand for accommodations, the Oceanview Annex was built and then the Colonial Annex. The latter boasted the first private baths in the area. As automobiles became more common, Charles erected individual garages and had a gas pump installed for the convenience of his motoring guests.
The Cliff House thrived through the roaring 20s and the shaky 30s. During World War II the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the property, built a radar station and kept a 24-hour-a-day vigil for Nazi submarines in the coastal waters. German U-Boats sank 152 Allied ships in the North Atlantic in January and February of 1942. Coastal cities and towns observed nightly blackouts to prevent ships from being silhouetted against the night sky. So important was this installation on Bald Head Cliff that the Weares were barred from their own land.
When peace returned, The Cliff House faced an uncertain future. Substantial damage and severe neglect had taken their toll of the property. Charles, discouraged by the condition of the land and nearly broke after having been deprived of income during the seizure of the family business, decided to sell. He placed this ad in a 1946 edition of the Wall Street Journal: "For Sale, 144 rooms, 90 acres, over 2500' of ocean frontage for just $50,000."
When there were no takers, Charles turned the property to his son, Maurice, an army veteran, who accepted the challenge with single-minded determination. Money was so scarce he even hand-rolled the mile long, blacktop driveway. In 1948, he married Charlotte Williams, The Cliff House secretary, and together they labored long and hard to overcome the countless obstacles to restoration of the resort's prestige. In 1960, they built the area's first swimming pool and three years later the first motor inn to be incorporated in a resort setting. This forward-looking couple presided over the most dramatic change of all: the top two floors of the venerable Inn were razed and the kitchen demolished. Thereafter, The Cliff House became primarily a motel and the coffee shop on the Inn's ground floor served only breakfast and lunch. But, they saved the Inn from oblivion and stayed in step during uncertain times.
In 1974, the fourth generation of Weare Family Maine innkeepers succeeded to The Cliff House ownership. Kathryn M. Weare filed a master plan for the Maine resort's future and launched a bold program of upgrading and expansion. The 1990 season opened with a new entrance bringing guests into a redesigned lobby area. A grand staircase connected the Ocean Terrace and new dining room below, as did two new elevators. A major conference room was added. There was a new recreation level with a gift shop, a fitness room, sauna and indoor pool. A substantial number of guestrooms were also part of this expansion, all with balconies overlooking the spectacular views of the south coast of Maine.
In May of 2002, the Cliff Spa was opened on the site of the original hotel. It boasts 32 over-sized guestrooms with gas-fired stoves. This new adult-only building features a 75-foot indoor lap pool and vanishing edge outdoor pool, indoor and outdoor whirlpool, a labyrinth, shower and locker areas with individual steam and sauna rooms, an expanded nail salon and 10 treatment rooms.
The long-awaited Connector Project between the main building and the spa building was completed in September 2004. On the first level is the amphitheater, seating more than 150 in high-tech chairs, each with a tablet arm for laptop, data port and power. This superlative addition to the conference facilities linked most guestrooms, banquet facilities, ballroom and meeting rooms. Since Elsie Jane first realized her dream and opened The Cliff House in 1872, there have been many changes at this Maine resort. But Elsie Jane's formula endures with each new generation of the Weare family: clean rooms, fine food, fresh air, personal hospitality ? all in an incomparable scenic location. Guests report that when they open the door to their room and step out on the balcony, an energizing breeze sweeps up from the surf below, past the wild rose bushes, and extends a timeless welcome.
New Castle Hotels will manage the Cliff House for Rockbridge.
Excerpted from my new book, "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi"