Grandmaison's Celebrate 50 Years With Ashworth

By Steve Jusseaume

Hampton Union, Sunday, November 2, 2003

HAMPTON BEACH - The Grandmaison family is celebrating 50 years of ownership of the Ashworth Hotel this year, and has scheduled special events to mark the anniversary.

An employee celebration is scheduled for Friday, as well as a gala New Year's Eve party, special overnight packages and dinner specials.

Norman Grandmaison, now 74, and his nephew John, co-owners, sat down to an interview and recalled their years at the hotel.

Its doors first opened on Memorial Day weekend, 1912. One of the first hotels to open at the beach, it was built by Col. George Ashworth, one of Hampton's most prominent citizens.

Ashworth sold the hotel to the Moulton family in 1944, the year Norman Grandmaison was hired as desk clerk, his first job there.

The Moulton family eventually sold the hotel to Carl Pinkham, a Miami real estate speculator. But Pinkham found it difficult to run such an enterprise as an absentee owner. And in stepped Norman Grandmaison.

Back from a service tour in Korea, Grandmaison leased the hotel in 1953 with his brother Paul, who owned the White Street Grill in Haverhill, Mass.

"I was discharged in August, and came back to Hampton," Norman recalled. "I spoke with Mr. Pinkham. He needed someone to come in on a management level."

Norman had been picked up at Fort Devens in Massachusetts by his brother. They eventually put together a management team and leased the hotel that summer.

"Five of us. We came in here and fired the whole kitchen crew. You, you, you ... Out! We had to show some of them the door. And we brought in a new chef. Mitty Pelosi," said Norman, who remembered when he started working there. "It was July 10, 1953. I got out of the service and went right to work. All my friends wanted to do was party, but I couldn't."

Back then all the beach hotels were seasonal, and none had air conditioning. Norman remembered one hotel advertised "natural air conditioning from the ocean breezes," he laughed.

Paul and Norman Grandmaison would purchase the hotel outright in 1954. They operated the place as a seasonal business until 1969, when it opened year-round.

"When we took over, it was a 15-week seasonal business," Norman said.

Probably the most controversial era during the Grandmaison's tenure was during the 1960s. Hampton had been a so-called "dry" town since the early part of the century, but some thought the beach needed alcohol to be a successful tourist destination.

State law did allow "first-class" hotels to serve alcohol.

"That meant hotels with 25 rooms or more and running water," Norman noted.

In 1957, after several previous applications, the Dunfey family applied for, and got, a state liquor license for Lamie's Tavern downtown. The town, concerned about the spread of alcohol sales, responded by passing a local ordinance in 1962 prohibiting the sale of intoxicating beverages in the beach district.

The Grandmaisons applied to the town for a liquor license, but their applications were rejected by the town time and again. The owners persisted.

"We were almost forced to get a liquor license to stay in business," Norman said.

Because of conflicting laws, he noted, at one point during the 1960s anyone visiting a Hampton hotel had to sign an affidavit stating they were not a Hampton resident in order to be served.

While the prohibition remained on the books for years, in 1969, the Ashworth, as well as Boar's Head Inn, the Aqua Rama Motel dining room and the Spindrift were finally granted relief to sell alcoholic beverages simply by applying to the zoning board for variances. In 1971, Hampton voters approved articles permitting liquor licenses to first-class hotels.

John Grandmaison, Paul's son, joined the management team in 1975.

"I first worked here when I was 13, in 1955," John recalled. "I worked here during high school and college, then went off to be an engineer. I came back in '75 and became operations manager."

Expansions and renovations followed. The property was doubled in size in 1980, with a new 64-unit addition, a second-floor pool and underground parking garage. A complete renovation of the original Ashworth building occurred in 1986, the year Paul Grandmaison died.

"The new lounge used to be a field," Norman said, noting that in 1980 the brothers bought and tore down the Eastwind Hotel to the north and expanded their business onto that site.

Today, the Ashworth includes more than 150 rooms, a 115-person capacity restaurant, a 200-seat lounge, and a 350-seat function room, all contained within 80,000 square feet of floor space.

Looking toward the future of his hotel and the beach, John confirmed that it remains difficult for hotels to survive in a seasonal area, and extending the season at Hampton Beach, plus "responsible redevelopment," would go a long way toward improving the quality of life and the business climate at the state's best-known ocean destination.

He said the recently approved beach master plan can be a good tool to guide development in the future, and the issues are pretty well defined.

"Traffic circulating at the beach needs to be curtailed, a new harbor bridge could help, and you've got to look at practical limits on heights," John said, urging future development to remain "in scale" with current buildings.

He added, however, that the current 50-foot height limit "might be on the restrictive side."

Density and parking are also issues that should be addressed.

"We're very proud of this place," John said. "We've got great employees, great customers. We exist in a dynamic environment. We have a terrific oceanfront and you've got to look at the natural environment. I see good things coming."

More information on the Nov. 7 employee alumni open house celebration, as well as other 50th anniversary events at The Ashworth, can be obtained by calling the hotel at 926-6762, Ext. 609.