Looking Back, Looking Ahead . . .
The History and Tradition of the Hotel Coolidge
The history of the Hotel Coolidge and that of the railroad in the Upper Connecticut River Valley are inextricably linked. Indeed, it was the advent of railroad service that originally created the need for hotel accommodations in White River Junction.
Railroad Beginnings. The Central Vermont Railway laid the first rails in early 1847 and, by the following year, the line stretched 25 miles north to Bethel. On June 26, 1848, Vermont’s first passenger train began service between White River Junction and Bethel, and by 1849, the line extended 90 miles north to Burlington and 15 miles south to Windsor. The success of the Central Vermont from Burlington to Windsor prompted the rapid addition of other lines to this area, and soon White River became the most important junction in Northern New England.
1849 Brings the First Hotel. Colonel Sam Nutt, a successful riverboat captain, recognized the need created by the railways for first-class hotel accommodations in White River Junction. In 1849, he retired from the river, purchased the Grafton House in Enfield, NH (some 20 miles to the east), had it transported to White River Junction, and after a period of reconstruction, opened the Junction House.
Colonel Nutt operated the Junction House for ten years before selling it to the Barrons family in 1859. Soon after acquiring it, the Barrons bought another hotel and had it moved and united with the original structure. When this combined hotel was destroyed by fire in 1878, its loss was regarded as “the natural sequence of the unrestricted looseness that characterized his (the senior proprietor’s) system of running the Public House.”
From the 19th to the 20th Centuries. By the end of 1879, a new structure containing 200 rooms had been rebuilt and sold. Under the stewardship of Ballard and Andrews, the hotel’s new owners, the Junction House soon became noted for its fine service and hospitality. At the turn of the century, no less than five railways served White River, generating business from 50 daily passenger trains and vast freight traffic. At that time, the Junction House hosted heroes’ welcomes, fairs, and served the performers from the Gates Opera House that was located next door. Records indicate that duringthis period the hotel accommodated more than 38,000 guests per year, prompting local wags to maintain “the beds never cool down at the Junction House.” In the winter of 1920, the hotel numbered among its guests the silent movie star Lillian Gish and the famous director D.W. Griffith. Miss Gish and Mr. Griffith had come to Vermont in order to film the ice scenes for “Way Down East.”
Renamed in 1924. Its then-owner Colonel Wheeler chose the name Hotel Coolidge in honor of his close friend Colonel John Calvin Coolidge. The father of President Calvin Coolidge, Colonel Coolidge was a frequent guest of the hotel, and his picture still hangs in the lobby, sternly surveying passersby. President Calvin Coolidge himself stayed on the first floor in Parlor Room A, preferring by reason of superstition to occupy an unnumbered room.
While changes in structure have been an intricate part of its history, the present Hotel is essentially that which resulted from a major reconstruction carried out in 1925. A comprehensive and extensive sprinkler system was installed in the 1930s, making the Coolidge one of the safest hotels anywhere. In 1950, artist Peter Michael Gish called the Coolidge home. In exchange for room and board, he painted the murals in the Vermont Room and the Cocktail Lounge.
The late forties saw the inauguration of the Coolidge dining room’s tradition of providing excellent American and Continental fare in a formal dining atmosphere.
In more recent years, a program of renovation and consolidation on the sleeping floors has resulted in the Hotel’s ability to offer, among its clean, renovated rooms, enough variety to accommodate individual preferences and needs at attractively affordable rates. And, as it has since 1849, the Hotel continues to accommodate passengers and crews from the trains that serve the Upper Valley. Guests still find that the Hotel Coolidge, a landmark in White River Junction, offers the warmth and charm of a rich past together with up-to-date convenience and reliability.
The Hotel Coolidge and the Creative Economy Ethic. Since 1985, the Hotel Coolidge has been especially involved in the concept of a Creative Economy. That year, as a new innkeeper, I produced a concert in the opera house featuring The Butch Thompson Trio from the “Prairie Home Companion.” This led to the formation of River City Arts, and shortly thereafter, the White River Theater Festival, the Yankee Brass Band Festival and the Cabin Fever Music Series. This eventually led to the fortunate arrival of Northern Stage in 1998. Cultural initiatives have continued on other fronts in the form of the Glory Days of the Railroad Festival created by me, John Gibb of Quechee and Jean Ballin of Thetford and a River City Arts Board member, who gave this now ten-year-old festival its name. The railroad heritage involvement has included support and leadership for an emerging transportation museum and similar efforts are underway for a transportation-planning institute.
Hotel employees literally helped to construct the opera house that was eventually renamed in honor of my father and mother, Fred and Bonnie Briggs, for their support and contributions. The role of the hotel staff included building risers, installing lighting and rehabilitating the salvaged movie theater seating there today. The entire staff is encouraged to “pitch in,” both on and off duty, to participate in community happenings. They haul chairs, set up rooms, move pianos, and otherwise make things possible in the name of hospitality and community. Included in this work is a photographic contest each year at the Glory Days of the Railroad Festival.
Engaging the inquisitive traveler in the history and the progress of bringing back community in such places as White River Junction has included a relationship with Elderhostel. Cultural programming developed by the hotel and selected associates has resulted in literally thousands of people, including grandchildren, from all states in the country to stay in White River Junction for a week at a time. The intensive curriculum intertwines performing artists with historians and naturalists to tell the story of the region, its prospects and its challenges.
The most recent addition to the Creative Economy in White River Junction has been the emergence of a unique school called The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). Offering a two-year degree around the art of the “graphic novel” this school is supported by nationally known and respected cartoonists and is attracting serious students from some of the nation’s best known four-year colleges as well. The Hotel Coolidge is embracing this initiative by reformatting its cafe into a casual room called “Inky’s Place” after the fictional character lying behind the school’s founding. The space is to serve as a casual meeting place for the community, a performance space for musicians and poets as well as the defacto “student union” for CCS.
Although the original vision of a historic district centered on a hotel was driven by my belief in the wisdom of pedestrian neighborhoods built on a “human scale,” confluence with the arts was early to occur and compelling as well. The transition path from a warehousing, wholesaling, retaining and transportation hub has been slow to emerge. This transition, begun as far back as the late 1950s, is only now clear enough to celebrate. The watchwords of the railroad era have been replaced by “Entertainment and Office” and, with respect to retailing, “Convenience and Craftsmanship.”
As one can only now easily realize, these new verbal cornerstones start and end with activities deeply rooted in creativity! Initially lured by affordable and available space, creative spirits should now forever be apart of the heartbeat of the village both economically and as a genuine sense of place known to so many as White River Junction.