At the century mark, Edgartown’s newest addition is the Vineyard Square Hotel

A popular destination in Edgartown for a hundred years, the Colonial Inn has appealed to a fashionable crowd. — Photo courtesy of Vineyard Square Hotel

It’s about the age-old and never ending delicate balance between preserving the past and changing with modern times.

It was called the Colonial Inn from the time Thomas Chirgwin opened it in 1911 at 38 North Water Street in Edgartown. Now, exactly one century later, the current owners are applying the three R’s of hotel ownership: “refreshing, renovating, and rebranding,” as Tom McConnell explained.

Two years ago, Mr. McConnell, 55, senior managing director of the Global Hotel Group at Cushman & Wakefield Sonnenblick Goldman, the real estate financial services corporation based in New York, and his brother Jack McConnell, 52, an attorney with Motley Rice in Providence, bought out the partners with whom they had acquired the property in 1999. They were on-Island last weekend to oversee last-minute pre-opening touches, as the hotel enters its second century with a new name: Vineyard Square Hotel & Suites.

“There was nothing colonial about the physical property,” explained Tom. “Plus there are a ton of hotels with ‘Colonial’ in their name — nothing unique there.” The brothers retained Rare Brick, a brand consultancy based in Portland, Maine, that specializes in positioning lodgings to “bring us into the 21st century,” added Tom. They’ve also commissioned West Tisbury’s Susan Sigel Goldsmith of MindShare Media to undertake marketing and public relations.

It officially opens for the season tomorrow, April 15. The new website launched on Monday:

Mr. Chirgwin might roll over in his grave to read on the website that it’s now classified as “boutique,” a phrase unheard of in reference to hotels until two decades ago, but he would appreciate the blend of old and new in the styling — even if he would have no idea who Laura Ashley is or how she inspired what the McConnells call “modern beach.”

That look for the 28 rooms and the lobby translates to light wood flooring matching similarly appointed furnishings with intricate woodwork, simple seascape paintings, and lots of pastel colors — a far cry from the worn wicker furniture Islanders may recall from the inn’s recent past.

The whole idea of the new name revolves around the fact that the owners hope to create even more synergy between the hotel and the shops in the same building that surround the red brick square: Chesca’s Restaurant, the Eisenhauer Galley, and the Sea Spa Salon. Throughout the coming season, in addition to the already popular Thursday night music provided by Mike Benjamin & Friends on the front porch, there will be more activities, trunk shows, and events hosted by Bluefish Coastal Boutique (also part of the building but facing Nevin Square).

The 100-day celebration will include a special $100 room rate for standard rooms this spring (ordinarily $165). The summer rates will run from $245 for the standard up to $495 for suites, some with gas fireplaces and harbor views.

Ms. Goldsmith mentioned another promotional tie-in she is particularly excited about. She came up with the theme tagline — “It’s Hip to Be Square,” based on a popular 1986 song by Huey Lewis and the News. As part of the century celebration, the hotel will sponsor a drawing, the winner of which will win accommodations for two, plus transportation to Hyannis and tickets to a Huey Lewis concert at the Cape Cod Melody Tent on July 17.

On June 2, Vineyard Square will kick off the whole shebang with a grand pre-opening event including music, tours of the building, historic trivia games, and giveaways. Prizes and freebies will continue to be given to guests over the next 100 days.

Back in the Day

This new energy is fairly consistent with what the area might have been like back in the day.

“North Water Street was hotel row, the financial epicenter of a very vibrant town back then,” said Mary Jane Carpenter, of Edgartown, who calls herself an “amateur historian” but is as well-versed as any professional when it comes to the historic buildings of Edgartown. There was the Daggett House, the Kelly House, the Edgartown Inn and the Shiretown Inn (from which many years later Ted Kennedy famously made the first phone call after his car went off a bridge on Chappaquiddick in 1969).

“There were six commercial wharfs at the time along the harbor,” she recalled, referencing an 1858 Henry F. Walling map that hangs in the Edgartown library next to the Vineyard Square. People would have almost literally fallen off the steamship with their bags and bundles and stumbled up the road that leads from where the On Time embarks for Chappaquiddick, and collapsed right at the steps of what is now the Vineyard Square.

In 1911 a local newspaper ad trumpeted the opening (capital letters as they appeared): “The Colonial Inn, Edgartown’s Largest Hotel NOW OPEN. This fine house, which has been in process of erection the past winter and spring, has been planned and built to give every comfort to guests, is furnished in Old English style, and furnished with every modern convenience… The Colonial Inn is Electrically Lighted, Hot and Cold Water Baths, and all the conveniences in modern plumbing. All rooms steam-heated for winter patronage. Finely located one minute from Steamship Wharf.”

Back then there were three dining rooms: the small dining room was for the owner’s family members along with the guests’ maids and chauffeurs. The middle-sized dining room was for guests’ children and their nannies. The main dining room was for adult guests. The dining rooms served three meals a day, and while there was 24-hour room service, no alcohol was served in any of them. The owner/innkeeper lived in the Bunker House, which is now the location of the 6-suite fractional ownership Residence Club, which opened in 2006 (the suites are rentable on an availability basis).

The McConnells join a group of previous owners whose names are closely associated with Martha’s Vineyard, among them the Pelows (whose grandfather, a MacDonald, was an Edgartown whaling blacksmith in the late 1890s), the Strock brothers (who owned it for 5 years in the 1960s) and the aforementioned Chirgwins (whose descendants still owned it until the Strocks bought it).

The Colonial Inn played host to its share of the rich and famous, including Howard Hughes, Somerset Maugham, Joan Walsh Auglund, I.M. Pei, a young woman by the name of Jacqueline Bouvier and a young man by the name of John F. Kennedy — though the last two stayed at different times and long before they met and married.

Perry Garfinkel, a West Tisbury-based journalist, writes regularly for The New York Times and other publications about travel and hotel industry trends and personalities.


April 14, 2011

This article has been revised. An earlier version incorrectly referred to the Vineyard Square Inn. The name is The Vineyard Square Hotel and Suites.