For the last several years, if someone wants to visit the North Shore, Swampscott is not where they would stay. Currently, there is not a single hotel, inn, or bed and breakfast in town.
But it wasn’t always like this. Swampscott was once a preeminent hotel and resort destination on the North Shore. That identity might be coming back, with Town Meeting members voting to amend zoning bylaws to allow construction of a 60-room boutique hotel at the former Hadley School site.
A Swampscott Historical Commission exhibition in Town Hall called “The Era of Swampscott Hotels,” curated by Commission Vice Chair Jonathan Leamon, tells Swampscott’s history of hotels from the 1800s until recently, according to the exhibition’s welcome plaque. The exhibition has been running since January and is set to end in June.
“Drawn to the cool breezes of the seashore, guests would often spend weeks, or even the entire summer, at resorts and hotels of a remarkable range of sizes and styles,” the plaque reads.
The New Ocean House, the Cliff Hotel, Willey House, Cap’n Jack’s Waterfront Inn, Hotel Beacon, the Bellevue, Lincoln House Hotel, Sunbeam Inn, and the Colony are just some of the hotels that used to be in town.
The Lincoln House Hotel, which was built in 1864, was named after Abraham Lincoln. This hotel was the “brainchild” of S.H. Wardwell, the owner of the Swampscott Tavern.
Wardwell saw an increase in summer travelers and wanted to create a place that catered to the more “elite” vacationers, the exhibition’s description of the hotel said.
“Wardwell operated the hotel with great success for nearly two decades by himself,” the description said “In 1881, he went into business with his brother, E.N. Wardwell, and they expanded the hotel.”
The Lincoln House Hotel was eventually “dismantled” in 1915, which was possibly due to a lack of vacationers when World War I began, the description said.
The Cliff Hotel, which was built in 1847, was first used as a boarding house in 1852. The Knowlton family built it and later ran it as a hotel.
“Its size, location, and name are visible on one of the earliest maps of Swampscott,” the description said. “Map records illustrate the continuity of this small but delightfully situated hotel from 1852 until roughly World War I.”
The building was “in ruins” by 1928.
The Willey House, which was built by James and Fannie Willey in 1910, started as a boarding house before becoming a hotel that lasted until the 1970s.
“The Willey House as remembered by the Erlewine brothers, who moved to Swampscott in 1956, ‘was an old fashioned hotel with a nightclub on the first floor and corridors of closed doors on the upper floors. It was a large house with three floors and it was probably as much a rooming house as a hotel,’” the description said.
The New Ocean House was originally built in the 1870s but a fire destroyed the building, so it was rebuilt in 1888. In 1969, another fire, this one a massive blaze, erupted in the building and burned the hotel down.
“We have artifacts from certainly the New Ocean House — which was in town until 1969 until it burned — the Preston Hotel, the Lincoln hotel,” Historical Commission Chair Nancy Schultz said.
Cap’n Jack’s Waterfront Inn was “the last one standing,” according to its description. It began as a Federal-style house in 1835, and then became a boarding house in 1920. It was purchased in 1967 by Dave Rooney, who named it Cap’n Jack’s Waterfront Inn.
“The demise of Cap’n Jack’s in 2012 marked the end of the hotel era in Swampscott,” it said. “The owner received an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the three houses were torn down, replaced by the Concordia condominium. The uproar in Swampscott was considerable, and the loss of the familiar streetscape was a great shock.”
However, this spring marked a potential revitalization of the hotel era. Select Board Member Peter Spellios said that when the town was faced with what to do with the Hadley School, he thought a hotel option would help preserve the building and likely bring in revenue.
“I can’t sit here today and tell you that this is going to be successful because the market is fickle,” Spellios said. “What we do know is that we have assembled the right team.”
“The Era of Swampscott Hotels” is the commission’s fourth exhibition about the history of Swampscott, Schultz said. The first one, which opened late 2021, was about Elihu Thomson. The next was about early Swampscott history, and the third was about Indigenous peoples.
“Our mission is to preserve and educate the history of Swampscott,” Schultz said. “We feel that by educating the citizens of Swampscott about all these various histories that people will really understand the importance of preservation.”