- by Jane Golden
The Crawford House: The End of an Era
For a moment, it was like in the old days. Crowds of people, laughing, conversing, enjoying themselves, were bustling in and out of the stately portico and strolling about the spacious grounds. That same aura, that hint of excitement that once welcomed presidents, artists, poets and the wealthiest of fine families hung in the crisp, clean air of Crawford Notch.
The setting was all too familiar, but more than a calendar day or even year had changed, and a certain sadness accompanied the day’s activities. The auction that would ultimately result in the razing of New Hampshire’s oldest summer resort had begun.
In the short span of four or five days, the entire contents of the Crawford House, the massive hotel that stood for 117 years overlooking one of nature’s most commanding views, would be sold to the highest bidder. In all, 1,847 items, including banisters, Currier & Ives prints, golf carts, bathroom fixtures, and wicker chairs would go “as is” and “where is” to the last person in the room with his or her hand in the air.
According to some, the prices were high, but others, in search of a bargain or conversation piece, willingly participated in the public auction through which Crawford House owner, George McAvoy, expected to raise anywhere between $75,000 and $150,000.
McAvoy announced he would postpone a decision on the future of the building until he consulted with his partner, Robert C. Hill, Ambassador of Argentina, but he added, “you obviously can’t do much with a hotel without furniture.” Four hundred and sixty of the Crawford House’s 486 acres were recently purchases by a coalition of conservation groups - Appalachian Mt. Club, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire’s Forest, and the Nature Conservancy - with the understanding the Forest Service would take over title as soon as it raised the necessary funds. The remaining 26 acres which include the hotel would probably be developed, said McAvoy, who appeared sincerely saddened at the mention of tearing down the historic structure he purchased, along with Hill, from the Mary Hitchcock Hospital in 1967. He had run it himself until 1972, his partner did likewise in 1973, and they last had leased it to others the last two summers. He ascribed its failure to turn a profit, like all the old hotels, to the rising cost of help and their lack of discipline and the incredible increase in fuel costs. “It uses up 10 tankers of fuel a season. Since I arrive the cost of tanker has gone from $500 to $2,200. That’s a $17,000 cost increase you just can’t absorb,” he explained.
During the weekend, 11th hour efforts to call off the auction proved futile. AMC, the State Historical Society, and an architectural firm had raised $12,000, but the attempt, according to McAvoy was too little, too late. “All we can say is that we tried,” said Tom Deans, Executive Director of AMC. “A lot of us felt the hotel was an important part of this area, and we wanted to find some way it could be restored and maintained.” He explained how the conservationist groups had been negotiating with Ambassador Hilldand McAvoy, and had found a buyer a week before the auction. “We tried to put a package together under the gun,” he continued, “and it was frustrating to see it all end on Saturday.”
The Crawford House, itself, was the architectural feat of its time. Constructed by Eastman, Tilton, & Co., the entire structure was built in 60 days, and served its first diners on July 4, 1859. It was, however, not the first Crawford House nor the first attempt of the Crawfords to entertain Notch travelers. Thomas and Ethan Allen, sons of Abel Crawford, built the first Hotch House about half way between the present one and the Gate of the Notch in 1828, and ran it successfully until Thomas left to erect his own resort hotel on the site of the current Crawford House in 1852. He soon ran into financial problems and sold out to J.L. Gibbs of Franconia Notch, who owned the hotel when it burned down seven years later. Sensing the success of its location, Gibb had a new one built in scarcely two months. With the exception of the sills, which were cut and hand hewn on the premises, all the materials were manufactured elsewhere and hauled by teams to the job.
The solid structure which has withstood over a century of high winds and ill weather was originally built in a capital E and has undergone few changes over the years. The risers of the main fames were mortised, tenoned, and reinforced diagonally. Every piece of the building fit into place before being transported to the site.
Every refinement possible was incorporated in its design. N 1870, ownership passed to the operating company of Barron, Merrill, and Barron who ran the inn until the Second World War. Already considered one of the most fashionable resorts of the White Mts., the Crawford House reached its full potential with the completion of the railroad in 1873.
New York, Philadelphia, and Boston society had put their seal of approval on the summer resort. The guest register during it boom time and before lists such visitors as presidents Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Warren Harding. Also included were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and John P. Marquand. The Crawford House was the playground for the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fairbanks, and other top merchants and manufacturers. As one time, 54 trains a day passed through the station, and agents of four railroads has their offices in the hotel lobby.
In the spring of year 1947, Colonel William Barron sold the property for cash to a group of entrepreneurs including B.F. McCutcheon of Princeton , N.J. who later donated the hotel to the Mary Hitchcock Hospital at Dartmouth College.
The Crawford House, the magnificent part of New Hampshire history that could accommodate 250 guests in addition to the help, is now little more than a shell awaiting a decision which with little doubt will mean its destruction. Parts of its past are now scattered about in living rooms, antique shops, and the trunks of automobiles headed for home. One destination is certain. Abel Crawford’s cannon, the one he would shoot for the amusement of his first guests, was purchased for $1,850 by the White Mt. Museum. There it will remain, a relic of another age, the time of Crawfords, and the Crawford House.
--July 30, 1976