The Big House
Living Large on Watch Hill's Oceanfront
LAST SUMMER I took an afternoon ride on the 74-foot, 1937 cocktail cruiser Aphrodite. During lunch I talked with the boat’s owner, Charles Royce, a hugely successful money manager. Royce told me about his hotel project, rebuilding a 150-year-old inn on the coast of Rhode Island. The scale of the project was mesmerizing, and because of my interest, he invited me to Ocean House, the replica of the old luxury resort by that name in Watch Hill.
My wife and I visited the recently opened resort and had dinner with Grant Simmons, Royce’s business partner. Simmons told us a bit about the hotel’s past, and more important, its future.
The Ocean House was built in 1868 to be a summer seaside resort. Blessed with gentle breezes and scenic beaches, Watch Hill and the Ocean House became a posh destination by the turn of the century. When American Aristocracy was filmed at the Ocean House in 1916, it stood as a prime example of Watch Hill’s golden age, and featured summer denizen Douglas Fairbanks. But as the century progressed, locals began building their own houses, and the grand hotel began to deteriorate.
In 2004, resident Royce led an effort to revitalize the mammoth inn, but it was deemed unsalvageable. So Royce sought to preserve the Ocean House site as a hotel by replicating the historic portion of the building. That is when Simmons got into the picture. The result will be the new Ocean House, opening in June.
Ocean House is beautifully appointed and casually elegant, with furnishings that bring together British Colonial, early American, and seaside aesthetics in a palette of yellow, blue, and cream. The exterior, designed in the classic Victorian style of the original hotel, couples red-cedar shingled roofs with wide verandas and features historically accurate reproduction accents. Salvaged were hundreds of items from the original building, including a giant main-floor fireplace that was replaced stone by pain-staking stone, as well as the long, wooden antique reception desk.
The team also hired a food forager, who connects with area farms to gather fresh pickings. Guests will be treated to farm-to-table cuisine in both fine and casual dining venues. The culinary team will employ local, estate-grown ingredients, organic produce, and ethical use of the sea for its menu. It will stock wines by Jonathan Edwards, a Connecticut vineyard that produces local and California reds and whites.
Ocean House has 49 guestrooms (plus 23 condos), paying tribute to the former glory of Victorian-era seaside hotels, updated with luxurious modern conve-niences. It seems no dollar was spared on craftsmanship, evidenced by quality workmanship and extraordinary detail. You can buy, rent, or stay for a night. Room rates in the summer’s high range from $495 a night to $1,500, unless of course you want the $5,000-a-night Tower Suite, which includes four floors in the flag tower high above the resort—or buy it now for $7 million.
On Aphrodite last summer Royce and I didn’t talk specifically about how much money he pumped into Ocean House. The number no doubt is large (just look at the picture). The economy at that time was at its worst. Luxury goods were eschewed, and the real-estate market was collapsing. Still, Royce was proposing to sell $7-million beachfront condominiums. “Do you really think it can work?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he said as we cruised along the coast, “but even if it doesn’t, at least at the end of it we’ll have a really nice hotel.”