This summer brought one of the worst days Block Island has seen in decades. The charming and beloved Harborside Inn stood sentinel over Old Harbor since 1879, when it first opened as the Pequot House by Darius Dodge. But on the night of Friday, August 25, a fire that started in the kitchen quickly spread throughout the old wooden hotel, devastating it in a matter of hours.
It was also one of the luckiest days – and testament to the community turning up in a crisis. Thomas and Gail Fredericks of Warwick were on their boat that evening in New Harbor when Thomas, a retired Cranston deputy fire chief, got wind around 11:45pm that the fire had broken out. He contacted his former colleague Greg Snow, also on the island that night, and the two headed over to see what was happening. Immediately, they were concerned.
“I could tell right away that it was bad,” Fredericks says. “The wind was out of the west, blowing the embers around.” Over the next several hours, they watched. “The fire crews did an amazing job at a defensive operation. The island easily could have lost that entire row of buildings. It’s a sad loss,” Fredericks agrees, “but no one got hurt. No one died. In the end it was a victory.”
For 144 years, Harborside gave the island good times and great stories. Soon after it was built, the destination branded itself as “the health-giving isle” in an 1886 advertisement for the inn describing Block Island as “steadily gaining in popularity as a resort that restores health to the sick” and “a refuge for those suffering from malaria or wishing to escape from infected districts.”
According to Janet Dionis, the education director at the Block Island Historical Society, “it was one of the first hotels built for tourists, not another rooming house for fishermen.” The Harborside had a doctor-in-residence at that time, she says, to further the connection between visitors and the healthy lifestyle it was touting.
In the early 1900s, it changed its name, as well as its reputation, and became the Hotel Royal, home to the popular Orchid Lounge, a favorite watering hole for islanders and tourists alike. This was the building’s “colorful” era, where ads ran in island newspapers looking for topless waitresses, and island rumors claim that it served as a brothel. The Block Island Life Facebook page is rife with locals’ testimonies about The Royal – relatives’ stories about working there, women who remember being told not to walk too close to it when they were children, and pictures of scantily clad singers and cocktail waitresses.
By the 1960s, it had solidified its reputation as an approachable, affordable place to vacation, and a centerpiece of hospitality on the
island. “It has shaped the careers of many islanders,” says Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. “All of my friends have worked there in some capacity over the years. It was an important place to islanders.”
It’s also remembered fondly by tourists. Kim Keune, a professional photographer from North Providence, recalls several overnights. “Each time I walked up the historic main stairway outside, I would wonder how many have done the same and also how many times the view changed out front since it was built,” she says. “The stairway from the lobby to the first floor was slightly crooked and narrow with low ceilings at the bottom. It made you feel as if you were in the fun house at the carnival.”
That staircase is now just a memory, as the state fire marshal has deemed the building a “total loss.” But Willi knows how resilient the island and its residents are. “I don’t know what the plan is,” she says, “but there will be a rebuilding of some kind. It’s a piece of lost history, but an opportunity to start again.”
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