The Hawthorne, Uncovered

The tapestry of Salem’s history is so densely woven, it’s sometimes hard to recognize how a central thread connects to all the others, especially if a popular theme (say, “Witch City”) dominates the weave. But Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel is in the very warp and weft of the city’s tourist-related cloth. If you imagined a “what-if?” scenario without The Hawthorne, Salem’s history would be diminished: less classy and less representative.

According to legend, the hotel grew from a distinctly civic impetus. Salem’s Chamber of Commerce led an initiative from 1923-25 to build a great hotel through public subscription. The hotel’s financing indeed happened this way, and with much fanfare. Dollar amounts raised were posted daily, as a steady publicity drumbeat kept everyone engaged. Salem residents literally bought into a vision of civic pride, and it worked. Designed by Philip Horton Smith and named for native son Nathaniel Hawthorne, the full-service six-story hotel next to Salem Common opened in 1925 with an impressive frontage of nearly 119 feet and an 87 foot long ballroom. No other North Shore city has anything like it.

While it’s true that Salem’s citizens raised the money (and collectively owned the hotel for a while), it’s also true that the effort was shaped by private interests. Frank Poor, founder of the Hygrade Electric Company (which later became Sylvania), saw the utility of a great hotel for his business clients. Poor’s role came to light a few years ago when one of his adult grandchildren told the Hawthorne’s General Manager, Juli Lederhaus, “My grandfather started the Hawthorne Hotel.” At first, Lederhaus dismissed the story, but further digging revealed Poor’s central role. Through Hygrade, Poor also donated all the light bulbs for the hotel’s opening. In the lobby, visitors can view an original Hygrade light bulb, found recently in an attic during renovation. “Stolen from the Hawthorne Hotel” and “Hygrade Electric” is printed on the bulb: if you filched a bulb from the hotel, your crime would be illuminated each time you flicked the switch!

In Juli Lederhaus the Hawthorne has found an energetic champion. Lederhaus has been the General Manager for thirteen years (longest-serving, and aside from a briefly-serving interim GM, the only woman to hold the post). Originally from San Francisco, she has a passion for historic hotels, having overseen the rebirth of the historic Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa. Her 1999 arrival coincided with the hotel’s upcoming 75th anniversary, and Lederhaus drew on history to create a stylish event: a festive showcase of weddings celebrated at the hotel through the decades, represented by original wedding dresses. Featuring nearly fifty dresses, it became a successful fundraiser for the North Shore Medical Center’s Women’s Health Center. The chief designer of Priscilla’s of Boston emceed the event, and a doctor from the Women’s Health Center commented with a history of women’s health issues for each decade of wedding dresses.

Weddings at the Hawthorne Hotel are still hugely popular. Approximately one hundred couples annually celebrate their marriages at the hotel in a tradition that goes back to the first wedding at The Hawthorne on October 17, 1925.

Under Juli Lederhaus’s management, the Hawthorne has fine-tuned its communications. Lederhaus always wanted a “voice” with which to talk to guests, but it wasn’t possible to interact personally with every single patron. So she started to blog about seven years ago and has written every day since. A perfect way to speak to her guests (and others), her blog is a historical archive of the comings and goings at the hotel and in the active small city of 40,000 that is Salem. Asked whether it’s hard to come up with topics on a daily basis, Lederhaus responds, “Running a hotel like this one is like running a little city, there’s always something happening.”

The hotel sees three main categories of customers: the individual tourist, the corporate traveler (individuals and groups), and the social segment (weddings, showers, even funerals). But always, Lederhaus explains, The Hawthorne is in the tourist business, and tourists want words that end in ST: first, biggest, best. “We can’t sustain an interest in Salem without that natural hook of being the first or the biggest in something,” she says, adding that other destinations would kill to have Salem’s history, even if aspects of it are tragic or grotesque. It gets people into a place, and once they’re there, they often quickly discover that there’s so much more to the city.

The Hawthorne has had many famous visitors: jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke stayed in 1926 during Prohibition, managing to snag some gin before his gig. Billy Joel, Christie Brinkley, Johnny Cash, Robert Redford, Vanessa Redgrave, Goldie Hawn, Walter Cronkite, Colin Powell, Barbara Bush, George Bush and Bill Clinton. The list goes on. Two episodes of “Bewitched” were filmed in Salem, and everyone’s favorite TV witch, “Samantha” (Elizabeth Montgomery), along with cast and crew, stayed here.

In between Beiderbecke and Bush, odd things happened to the hotel, too. In the 1950s, the name changed to Hawthorne Motor Hotel in an effort to keep up with “motordom,” and the street fabric was severely damaged when several historic buildings behind the hotel were torn down to make room for a charmless surface parking lot. In the 1970s, a second floor mezzanine overlooking the lobby was eliminated to make room for additional function rooms.

One curious aspect of the building that has survived since the opening, and will survive as long as the hotel remains, is on the roof: an exact replica of a ship’s cabin, from the Taria Topan, one of the last great Salem vessels to ply the lucrative merchant seas in the 19th century.

Why is a ship’s cabin on the hotel roof so far above sea-level? It’s the meeting place of the Salem Marine Society, one of the world’s oldest marine socities (after Boston and London), founded in 1766 by a group of 18 shipmasters and owners. One of its earliest good works was constructing the 1792 Baker’s Island lighthouse, and it continues its philanthropic work through scholarships for aspiring mariners. The Society landed on the roof because from 1830-1923 it owned the Franklin Building, located on the site chosen for the new Hawthorne Hotel. In 1923 the Society razed the building and sold the land to Salem; in exchange they obtained a meeting place in perpetuity.

Allan Vaughan, the Society’s Clerk, explains that membership in the 240-strong society is open to “crossers of the oceans” and descendants of past members (traditionally all-male, but since 1995 also open to females). Vaughan’s own roots go back to his 1830s ancestor Francis Peabody.

Its two most illustrious members are Nathaniel Bowditch, author of The American Practical Navigator; and Virginian Matthew Maury, who was made an honorary member prior to the Civil War. When that war broke out, Maury sided with his home state, scandalizing the Yankee brethren. They voted to turn his portrait to the wall, hanging it upside down in rebuke. Maury had been named to the Society because of his enormous contribution to maritime commerce and navigation, his Sailing Directions and Physical Geography of the Seas and Its Meteorology being a standard reference for mariners.

When a Virginia delegation visited the Salem Marine Society in 2006, the visitors took offence at Maury’s effacement. The contretemps had a happy ending, however. While Maury’s original portrait still hangs as before, a second likeness and explanation of Maury’s significance were added, making the Virginia delegation happy. Allan Vaughan, through a complex set of circumstances set in motion by the Virginia complaint, met the woman he loves (and married last year). And although they married in Fredericksburg, Virginia, it all started at the Hawthorne Hotel.

Yule Heibel lived in Beverly during the 1990′s while teaching art history in Cambridge. In 2002, she moved to Victoria, BC, home-schooled her kids, and read Jane Jacobs. Now back on the North Shore, Yule is passionate about fostering vibrant urban development that gets people out of their cars.

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