Updated: 2 pm, Friday, June 17.
In 1891, several influential Edgartown businessmen invested in a new hotel, the Harbor View as it would come to be known, in hopes that it would buoy a sinking economy and help reinvent the town as a summer resort. Back in the late 19th century, Edgartown’s glory days as a prosperous whaling city were in the past, Oak Bluffs had become the tourist destination of the Island, and things were looking a rather bleak.
To look at Edgartown today, the flourishing world-class destination resort that it has become, it would be nice to think that those early businessmen’s investment saved the day. In many ways it did, but it was a long and eventful journey, punctuated by two world wars and a Great Depression.
A turning point came after World War II, when the hotel, like the rest of the country, was trying to find its footing, and a new group of owners led by Alfred Hall appeared on the scene and helped usher the deteriorating hotel into the modern age.
We’ve reprinted the account of this chapter of the hotel’s history from the book “The Harbor View: The Hotel that Saved a Town,” written by Nis Kildegaard.
A Cherished Landmark
“Many summer residents who later built homes in Edgartown first came to the Harbor View.”
In the years just after the Second World War, the Harbor View continued to be an important destination for families who gathered here to enjoy their summers together. But the Harbor View was no longer the only resort hotel in town. The Edgartown social columns followed weekly arrivals at the Harbor View in the summer of 1949, but also arrivals at the Colonial Inn, the Harborside Inn, the Charlotte Inn, and the Edgartown Inn.
Edgartown, like its neighbor towns on Martha’s Vineyard, was now a village of hotels and inns. The town also had a growing community of seasonal visitors who rented or owned their summer homes. In fact, it’s likely that by the end of the 1940s, after three decades of management by the penny-pinching Andrew Littlefield, the Harbor View Hotel had more financial value simply as real estate on the residential market than it had as a moneymaking business — not unlike today.
“The hotel and the cottages really were in bad shape. Everything was in bad shape,” recalls Charlotte Hall, Alfred Hall’s daughter, who still lives in Edgartown. “The hotel had been reduced to a sort of boarding house; there were these faithful people who came every summer and put up with it.”
Yet a group of town leaders had already looked past the sad state of the hotel and decided to do something about it. Which raises the question, Why organize a group of investors to purchase and save an aging hotel? The answer is that by 1949, the people of Edgartown saw the Harbor View not just as one hotel among many, but as a cherished landmark.
Announcing the hotel’s sale that September, the Vineyard Gazette, continuing its longstanding support of the now aging hotel, described the Harbor View as an important influence in Edgartown, “long occupying a place of leadership.”
Alfred Hall, the prominent businessman representing a group of purchasers, told the newspaper that he and the new owners planned to modernize it and return it to the “same relationship to Edgartown that it had in its heyday.”
The 1949 Vineyard Gazette story resonates with echoes of the community spirit that had welcomed the Harbor View’s original investors in 1890 as “a roll of honor.” Echoed again was a fierce pride in the enterprise as a community endeavor: “Mr. Hall said that the ownership of the new company will be entirely on the Island or among summer residents. There will, he said, be no mainland interest involved.”
Unstoppable Alfred Hall
Alfred Hall was a dapper human dynamo, a businessman and philanthropist who for some 30 years, at the peak of his long career, owned nearly one-third of the buildings on Edgartown’s Main Street. Born in 1898 to Benjamin and Bessie Hall — his father was proprietor of Hall’s Department Store in Edgartown — he was an athletic boy, a graceful baseball player, and one of the fastest runners in town.
Educated at the University of New Hampshire, Harvard University, and Boston University — his schooling was interrupted by the First World War, where he rose to the rank of captain in the Chemical Warfare Division — he returned to Edgartown in 1923 with a degree in business administration from BU. For a time he worked with his brother Morris in his father’s retail store. (“We sold shoes, shirts, socks, sealing wax, and sailing ships,” he liked to say in later years.) But Hall’s Department Store wasn’t big enough to support two families, so Alfred purchased Dr. Worth’s drugstore across from the Edgartown National Bank, at the intersection called Four Corners.
Upstairs from the drugstore, in the boom years of the 1920s, Hall operated a seasonal stock brokerage in a room outfitted with plush leather chairs for Edgartown’s wealthy summer businessmen, who would lounge and smoke and read the latest ticker-tape prices from a large blackboard. At the end of the season in 1929, as he always did, Alfred Hall closed the brokerage business and cashed in all his stocks — just months before the October market crash that started the Great Depression. Several years later, flush with cash, he purchased the Elm Theatre on Main Street (“475 seats, open three days a week”). Alfred Hall owned and managed five Island movie theaters, including the now closed Strand, Island, and Capawock theaters. *Editor’s Note: The Strand and Capawock theaters have re-opened since the original printing of “The Harbor View: The Hotel that Saved a Town.”
Hall also opened an insurance agency whose business was boosted greatly by the Hurricane of 1938, one of the most powerful ever to hit the New England coast. The storm caused heavy damage across the Vineyard, and nearly wiped the fishing village of Menemsha off the map.
Prompted, or so he later said, by many people inquiring about places to stay in town, he began to deal in real estate — buying, renovating, renting, and selling homes and commercial properties across Edgartown.
In 1932 he married the love of his life, Marjorie Hayden Lambert, whom he’d first met at the Edgartown Town Hall dances. A young beauty from Brockton, educated in the art schools of Boston, she had summered for years in Edgartown with her aunt, Mattie Lambert Pease. Alfred and Marjorie had three children, Charlotte, Marcia, and Benjamin (all of whom still reside on the Island), and their love of dancing together continued long into their retirement.
Alfred Hall, always a trim and natty figure — he loved his blazers and tweeds, seersucker jackets in summer, and often wore a bow tie — poured a prodigious amount of energy into civic and philanthropic work on the Island he loved. He was an ardent advocate of regional services, leading the push for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and serving as chairman of the regional school committee. He served as president of the Dukes County Historical Society, a director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and a trustee of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, chairing its finance committee.
When Edgartown was faced with the possible demise of the Harbor View Hotel at the close of the 1940s, it was natural that the community should turn to the business leader who was also a leader in the town’s civic life.
A Family Project
In December 1949, a new entity, Harbor View Hotel Corp., bought the entire hotel operation from the Walker family’s Harbor View Hotel Inc. for $50,000. Alfred Hall, leader of the purchasing group, was its vice president and managing director. Cornelius S. Lee of New York and Edgartown, founder of the Edgartown Golf Club and a longtime officer of the United States Golf Association, was president of the new company. The board of directors included Edgartown summer residents Roger S. Robinson and John W. Garrett II, and Frank J. Connors, the proprietor of Edgartown’s grocery store and meat market. Charles H. Center and his wife, brought in two years earlier, were kept on as managers of the hotel.
Alfred Hall’s son, Benjamin Lambert (Buzz) Hall, and his sister Charlotte remember the excitement that surrounded the new project, and their father’s commitment to it. “The new owners would not go into it unless my father was involved,” Buzz recalls.
“He was the one who organized it,” says Charlotte. “He said, It’s a shame for this potential jewel to be falling apart.”
Buzz Hall remembers a pattern among the Harbor View clientele of that day: a wealthy woman and her poor relation, staying the summer in the same rooms year after year. Miss Windsor and Miss Wister from Philadelphia were one such pair, he says. Miss Bowen and Miss Blythe were another. Together, the four would play bridge in the card room almost every evening. The Harbor View needed a thorough freshening-up as a destination for a new generation of summer visitors, and Hall set about the task with his characteristic energy. His ally in what became a family project, his children say, was his wife, Marjorie, who had trained in art at the Vesper George School and the Museum School in Boston.
“I remember my mom saying that we have to decorate it with a splash,” says Charlotte, “and we have to have a good chef. Those were the two requirements.”
It was a time in the Hall family’s life when the children were leaving the nest, and Marjorie threw herself wholeheartedly into the renovation. “She loved doing this,” recalls Charlotte. “She was a frustrated painter, really, and the Harbor View was her canvas. It was her sense of panache that really helped put the hotel on the map.”
For the first years of the 1950s, the Harbor View was a project for the whole Hall family. Charlotte, with her typing skills, did secretarial work in the hotel office. Buzz Hall learned the complexities of the hotel switchboard, and dug holes all over the property for the gardener, who replanted the grounds at Mrs. Hall’s instructions.
“Mother was the one who planted the first Marissa hydrangeas on the lawns,” says Charlotte. “Some of them are still there, along the side, hugging the porch. Everybody has them now. And in the back, she planted a big cutting garden, and with this wonderful gardener they had gladiolas and zinnias and marigolds — everything you could think of for the dining room and the lobby, all summer.”
Buzz remembers befriending and being tutored in Latin by the couple who ran the Harbor View’s front desk each summer, who were teachers in Worcester during the school year. “I paid for the tutoring by taking them out to sail in the harbor,” he says. “I’d take them out, and I’d let them take the helm while I read Latin, and they’d correct me.”
Owning the Harbor View wasn’t all work for the Halls. Buzz and Charlotte Hall have happy memories of family meals served by celebrated chef Henry Haller in the hotel dining room, whom they had recruited after a nationwide search. Buzz especially remembers the lavish Sunday buffets. “Your appetizer,” he recalls, “would be half a lobster.”