If it wasn't written down, it didn't happen ...

Hotel Burns

by Patricia and Edward Shillingburg ©2005


This is what the New Prospect Hotel look like the day before it burned to the ground on June 26, 1942. She had 150 rooms, a dining room, ball room, and a grand foyer. Management took great pride in its excellent cuisine and gracious service. She was a premiere resort hotel, though a short season made a profit difficult.

    From the New York Times, June 27, 1942:

The New Prospect at Shelter
Island Heights Is Destroyed
SHELTER ISLAND HEIGHTS, L.I., June 26 -- The main building of the New Prospect Hotel, a 160-room frame structure built about 50 years ago, was destroyed early this morning by a fire of undetermined cause.
    The blaze, discovered at 4 A. M., routed eighteen guests and sixty employes. One of the guests, Mr. Frank Ivers of Boston, suffered a leg injury in jumping from a second-story window. The occupants lost most of their personal effects in escaping. Volunteer firemen from several commmunities fought the flames and succeeded in saving the large annex.
    The hotel, one of the best-known Summer hostelries in Eastern Long Island was scheduled to have its formal opening today and sixty guests were expected to arrive tonight. The loss is partly covered by insurance.

    The Prospect House was built in 1872 and had served as the social center of the Heights for nearly 70 years. During the first 19 years of the 20th Century it had been allowed to deteriorate, but in 1920, after extensive renovations, it reopened as the Poggatticut. It had a fire in 1923, and when it opened in 1924, it was renamed the New Prospect Hotel. For the next two decades, it was constantly updated and modernized, under the careful attention of the Heights Association presidents, Charles A. Angell from 1925 until his death in August 1933, and then by his wife Ida Louise Angell, who died in February 1942. The hotel survived the Depression when many people, who would otherwise spend time at the hotel, didn’t have discretionary income. Then, it survived the rationing of gas and rubber, in the early years of the war.
    The hotel was a first class establishment. It had a full orchestra which played at both lunch and dinner. There was a formal dinner dance every Saturday night. There was now a cocktail lounge and a beauty parlor and barber shop. Tea was served on the veranda in the afternoon, and lunch was also available on the upper floor of the Beach Club. The hotel management prided itself on its reputation for the very finest cuisine and gracious service.
    There was a time in the past when the Heights excluded the Island folks from participation in hotel social events, but by the 1930s, this was no longer true. Everyone was invited to dine and dance at the hotel. So, the fire was a major blow to the social fabric of not just the Heights, but of the whole Island.
    Because the kitchen was gone, the Annex could not be used for guests, and Beach Club activities were curtailed. Because no one was coming to the Prospect Hotel and gas and rubber were rationed, Ferry traffic was seriously diminished.
    An interim report to Stockholder from the new President of the Heights Association, Waldo Kraemer, dated October 15, 1942, tells the story:
    The fire occurred at an unfortunate time. The bookings were the largest that we have had in many years, and were of a character that insured a very good year’s business, as most of them were for considerable periods, which would have been distributed more evenly rather than peaking at each weekend as in previous years. This would have enabled the hotel to operate more efficiently and it would have been reflected in a very good sized profit. Also, the hotel was ready to open on the day in which the fire occurred. All pre-opening expenses had been incurred, and these, as may be imagined, were quite considerable, as they included advertising publicity, manager’s expenses before opening, house-keeper, handy-men, and so forth.

    The fire insurance policy payment of $140,325 allowed the Association to pay all of its debt including the first mortgage of $31,742.50 with the Peekskill Bank and a second mortgage of $46,871.66 with the Estate of Charles A. Angell.   
    The report continued:
    In regard to the future, the Board has considered many alternatives. Even if it was considered economically sound, no steps can be taken at present toward rebuilding the hotel. It is well realized that the hotel represented more than a mere business enterprise to the Heights, and more particularly to Shelter Island as a whole. The Board has long felt that with the excellent management and reputation the hotel enjoyed, it rather set a standard for the Island and its activities produced much favorable publicity. It may well be that in spite of the precarious nature of the enterprise, that rebuilding the hotel would be justifiable. However, as nothing can be done for the duration [of the war], the entire matter is being held in abeyance.

    To add further stress to the Association, the Federal Government determined that the fire was an involuntary conversion of assets (from a hotel to insurance) and was taxable at slightly more than $10,000. Then there was the issue of lost and damaged property of the guests. The Association had no obligation but a moral one, and did not want to threaten the good will and good name of the hotel.
    At the end of 1942, the Association was free of debt but lacked cash reserves.
    In his February 11, 1943 annual report, Mr. Kraemer wrote:
    Plans for the future are necessarily vague. From a dollar and cents standpoint it would appear to be the height of folly to borrow sufficient money to build anew. The amount of money necessary to build a first class hotel of the class of Sky-Top, as an instance, where a $7 to $9 a day charge can be made, is so great that the short season with which we are faced and the vagaries of the weather make it extremely problematic whether the fixed charges as interest, taxes, and repairs can be successfully met from operations. Nevertheless, it may be that other considerations covering the general good of the Island and the Association are sufficient to out-weigh this loss, and that it could be overcome with an increase in income from other source which would profit from the fact that such a hotel was in operation. Nothing, in any event, can be decided at present because of the total inability to secure either the necessary labor or material.

    By early 1943, the fire ruins had been cleared and the site had been graded to its present state.
    The annual report for the year 1943 shows that ferry receipts were gratifying and that “such a showing... made in view of gasoline rationing and a consequent $15,000 drop below 1941 Ferry receipts, is a source of great gratification to your officers and a harbinger of what may be expected when normal conditions once more prevail.”
    About a decade before, the Ferry Company had purchased a third ferry, the Islander. The Shelter Island was altered to give it the carrying capacity of the Islander. And the New Prospect, which had originally been named the Poggatticut and, built in 1920, was the first double ended ferry to serve the Island year-round, was sold in early February 1943. So, now there were two ferries to man, maintain and insure.
    The Beach Club had regained its popularity and it had its most successful season in years.
    As to plans for the future, your officers have been gathering data, making preliminary plans, etc., in an effort to peer ahead and chart a course, whether to expand operations by building a new hotel, or to follow an alternative scheme.  Our Association must not become moribund. We face the future with confidence. Our combined efforts will achieve success and prosperity.

    In the early Summer of 1943, the Association had inquired of the North Fork Wrecking Company of Mattituck about the cost for tearing down the Annex. The company offered to start the job immediately after Labor Day and to have the job completed by February 1, 1944. The job would cost $2,200. In the meantime, Marvin Shiebler -- who was constantly writing alarmist letters to the officers of the Association declaring that it was on the verge of bankruptcy, needed to fire its manager, and must deal with the road congestion around the post office and the pharmacy -- was desperately trying to save it. He declared its value to be $50,000 and tried to find a buyer. He succeeded for a while.
    However, after his death, which was in late October 1944, Celeste Shiebler, his widow, was raising the subject again. In a letter to Ralph K. Jacobs, her New York attorney:
    “I have just heard... that the Association is again planning to tear down the New Prospect Hotel Annex which Marvin estimated was worth $50,000...
    “Marvin saved this building twice in the past year and once the year before. He had plans drawn which provided for a Mount Vernon front...”
    Mr. Jacobs responded the next day saying that Robert C. Cummings, a member of the Association Board, had called upon him just yesterday and said “that there was talk among the trustees about tearing down the annex, but he was opposed to it.” He continued, “As a very interested party, owning one-third of the stock of the Association, you have a stake in this proposition...”
    On March 27, Mrs. Shiebler wrote to Mr. Kraemer: “A client of mine has asked me to ascertain the asking price of the Hotel Annex together with the land on which the New Prospect was formerly situated.”
    He replied on April 2: “It was... decided that the Association would not sell the annex to any other individuals if it was to be used as a boarding house or an inn. If this is its ultimate use, the Association would operate it, as it is of course of prime importance that this building, placed in its location, should remain under close control.”
    On April 5, Mrs. Shiebler wrote to Mr. James B. Wray: “The word from Mr. Kraemer was what I expected. They will not sell to anyone interested in running a ‘boarding house or inn,’ for under those circumstances they would want control.”
    The annual report dated February 14, 1946 states, “The Board after grave deliberation, decided that the old Hotel Annex would require so much work to make it usable that it could not ‘pay out’ -- it and its contents were sold to a wrecking concern.”
    There was no longer talk about the possibility of building a new hotel on the site of the New Prospect.
    Sources for this story were the New York Times, the papers of Marvin and Celeste Shiebler, and the annual reports of the Shelter Island Heights Association in the archives of the Shelter Island Historical Society.
    Other Island historical research can be viewed at www.shelter-island.org. Click on the Island History Revisited button.