Basinger: Memories of a hotel summer
By Dale Basinger
For the Salisbury Post
Recently I was reading in the Salisbury Post about young people searching for summer jobs. This brought to mind my searches for summer work during my high school and college summers.
Rockwell Casket Company. Cannon Mills. East Rowan Telephone Company. Coppersmith Furniture Company. These were places I worked.
In the spring of 1965 while a junior at Lenoir-Rhyne College, I decided I wanted to do something different that summer. Fortunately my classmate, Stuart Thompson, mentioned to me that he had worked at a place in Connecticut called The Madison Beach Hotel the previous summer.
Stuart urged me to apply for a position at the hotel and I did just that. After a couple of weeks I received a reply from the owner, Mr. Kenneth Decker, that a position as dishwasher was available for a salary of $170 a month plus room and board. I wanted the adventure as well as the money so I wrote back to accept the job.
Being from rural Rowan County I did not know what to expect on my journey north. My parents dropped me off at the Trailways bus station in Salisbury at 1 a.m. on an early June morning. In New York City I was transferred to a Greyhound bus for the remaining part of the trip to New Haven, Connecticut which was still 20 miles south of Madison. I hitchhiked the remaining way and finally arrived at the Madison Beach Hotel late that afternoon. Being new at this travel business, I assumed my luggage would arrive sometime soon. Little did I know that it would take three days to catch up with me.
Just seeing the hotel for the first time in person was a disappointment. Sagging hallways, musty carpet, and plenty of places that needed painting got my attention. In fact one young man came all the way from Michigan with his family, took one look at the place and proceeded to take the long trek back home.
The Madison Beach Hotel was built in the early 1800s as a rooming house for ship builders and was first known as the Flower House. West Wharf beach was one of two shipyards in Madison, most noted for constructing ships for trade in the West Indies. The history of the hotel in the 1800’s is sparse due to the fact that the West Wharf shipyard was the smaller of the two shipyards.
The Decker family operated the hotel in the 1960s when I worked there. They would arrive in May and leave in October for their winter home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Under their ownership, the hotel had approximately 53 rooms and each floor was divided by a central hallway. Only a few rooms had the luxury of a private bath. Heat was not introduced until the renovations of the 1980s. In addition to the hotel, the Decker family owned seven cottages nearby, one in which they stayed for the summer.
Shortly after arriving, I soon found that others who had not worked there previously were as bewildered as I. Positions of employment included not only dishwashers of which there were six of us but also desk clerks, bellhops, chambermaids, waitresses, books, pantry man, night watchman, houseman and beach boy. Employees for the summer came from various colleges and universities such as Emory, University of Massachusetts, Union University in Tennessee, Western Michigan, Tulane and many others, including Lenoir-Rhyne. Getting to know such a diverse group of fellow college students was one of the best parts of the summer.
Many of the hotel guests came back summer after summer to enjoy the small beach in front of the hotel. The water in Long Island Sound seemed especially cold even for July and August to those of us from the South. Some guests stayed the entire summer and many families would stay for weeks in one of the cottages. The food preparation was under the direction of Nat Watson, a chef at Yale during the school year and many guests came just for the food itself. One advantage of being on the staff was eating the same food prepared for the guests. You could not order from a menu but you knew what to expect, for example lamb on Thursday night and roast beef on Saturday night.
Living conditions for the staff bordered on the poverty level. Girls who worked there stayed above the kitchen in what was called the Harem. Boys stayed in the fourth floor attic of the hotel in what was called the Pullman. With a roommate, you had to decide which of you would stand and which would stay on the bed.
There were several firsts for me during the summer of 1965. We would get one day a week off, so David Parrish, a fellow dishwasher, and I decided we would hitchhike to Boston which was about 120 miles away. After two hours and six rides got us 30 miles up the road, we decided to cross I-95 and head back south to return to the hotel. The first driver to stop said that he was going into New York City and would we like to go. We said yes, and that was my first real experience in The Big Apple. David and I walked from Central Park to Greenwich Village and were dead tired when we returned, but we were young and the experience was worth it.
On another occasion, I took in my first baseball game at Yankee Stadium where the Yankees were playing the Cleveland Indians. Vern Benson of Granite Quarry was the third base coach for the Yankees during that season.
Another first was seeing a Broadway play. This came about due to my friendship with Phil Carney, who was the social director of the hotel. Phil, who was the brother of Art Carney (Ed Norton on the TV program The Honeymooners) invited me down on the train to see a matinee performance of “Mame” starring Angela Landsbury. Having an apartment on East 73rd Street, Phil certainly knew his way around New York City. Art had also worked at the hotel as had many of the Carney nieces and nephews.
One summer at MBH was not enough. After graduating in 1966 I decided to return to work once again as a dishwasher. This was the summer before my first teaching job at Knox Junior High. After my second year of teaching at Knox I returned again to MBH in the summer of 1968 where I got a promotion to pot washer with a raise of $10 a month.
On one of my off days in the summer of ’68, I traveled down to New Haven, home of Yale University where Nelson Rockefeller was scheduled to give a speech on the Green. Rockefeller was running for President that year and I listened to him speak but noticed a distinguished looking gentleman on the podium with him. I walked up to him and said that I admired him both as a baseball player and as a person who paved the way for so many other black Americans to gain equal rights. I shook hands with Jackie Robinson.
The view of Long Island Sound is beautiful from the Madison Beach Hotel which overlooks a small island nearby called Tuxis. On a clear day you can see all the way across the Sound to Long Island, about 14 miles away. The hotel itself along with the cottages was sold by the Deckers in 1969. The hotel was completely renovated in 1982. The number of rooms was pared down to 32, all with waterfront views, including a fourth floor of suites where the Pullman used to be.
In 2006 Ric and Dawn Duques, longtime residents of Madison, bought the hotel with the intention of lifting it out of disrepair. Instead, the consensus among builders was that the roughly 200-year-old building, having already undergone multiple renovations and enhancements, could endure no more. The new owners decided to tear down the old hotel and replace it with a completely new building.
The new hotel opened this May with larger guest rooms, a spa and fitness center, a banquet facility, a gift shop, and a honeymoon suite on an upper floor. A special draw is the hotel’s two restaurants, catering to the formal and informal culinary needs of both its hotel guests and the general public. There are private balconies overlooking the beach and Sound and there’s still the veranda where anyone can take in the breathtaking views.
Unfortunately, all this newness comes with a price. The cost of a room during the months of July and August runs over $400 a night. My wife and I will be joining David Parrish and his wife Jane (a former waitress at the hotel) in July. However, we will be staying in a cottage near the hotel and hope we can get a tour of the new facility. The “old Madison Beach Hotel” may have been torn down but there will be many ghosts remaining for those of us who can see them.