Martha’s Vineyard History – the Island and the Hotel
Vineyard Square Hotel & Suites has a rich history on the island under its former name – The Colonial Inn. Built and run for 100 years as a lodging establishment, the hotel has served many a guest in its century of existence. But let’s start with the beginning – with the history of the island itself.
Martha’s Vineyard History
Noepe, meaning “land amid the waters” is the first documented name for The Island. This is how the Island’s Wampanoag tribe referred to their home. Carbon dating places the first “Islanders” here around 2270 B.C. – probably before it was an island!
When Bartholomew Gosnold discovered the island in 1602, it is believed that he dubbed the beautiful island “Martha’s Vineyard” after his baby daughter (and/or his mother-in-law who it is said financed his voyage) and the abundance of wild grapes that grew here. Thomas Mayhew bought the island in 1642, and the first white settlement was established at Great Harbour (now Edgartown). Under the leadership of his son, Thomas Mayhew Jr., a minister, the island’s Native Americans and white settlers lived in peace and flourished. The natives taught the settlers many things, including fishing and whaling.
Great Harbour became Edgartown in 1671, named for the young son of the Duke of York (the presumed heir to the English throne). Edgar was only 4, and died one month before the name was actually changed.
In the 1820’s, whaling blossomed as a profitable industry for Martha’s Vineyard; and successful whaling captains built many of the stately white mansions of Edgartown (currently lining Water St.) during this period.
Martha’s Vineyard as a Summer Retreat
In 1835 the Edgartown Methodists held the first camp meeting at the northern end of town… the popular idea became an annual event and Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) eventually evolved from the campsite. This was the beginning of a new industry for Martha’s Vineyard as a summer retreat.
The Evolution of an Edgartown Landmark
Thomas Henry Chirgwin, an Edgartown native in search of a new endeavor after selling his Oak Bluffs plumbing business, built the Colonial Inn which opened as a hotel in 1911. The business endeavor began modestly with a somewhat small house of 16 rooms on the site of the current hotel. It was conceived of as an upscale, in town resort. When it opened that year, the Colonial Inn was described as finished in Old English style, and furnished with every modern convenience. “The rooms are large and airy, with many superb water views, and the beds are famous for their comfort. Three dining rooms serve the pleasure of guests, and the table in variety and cuisine will continue to be unsurpassed.” The Inn’s ads also heralded being electrically lighted, having Wintucket Spring Water, hot and cold baths, and all rooms being steam heated for winter patronage. All of this was “finely located” just one minute from Steamboat Wharf.
“In every essential the Colonial Inn is homelike and cheerful. No pains are spared to insure the guests the fullest measure of comfort and satisfaction, and the proprietor hopes for such appreciation as will bring visitors back again along with their friends.”
After a successful first season, the Inn was enlarged the next year, doubling its original size. The Inn consisted of the current “Main Building” which housed 32 rooms and 3 dining rooms (capable of feeding 400 people a day). The “small dining room” was for the owner’s family members along with the guests’ maids and chauffeurs. The “middle dining room” was utilized by the guests’ children and their nannies, and the “main dining room” was for the adult guests. The dining rooms served three meals a day, and there was 24-hour room service… but no alcohol was served in any of these outlets! In 1921, the adjacent building was added where the current Edgartown Residence Club Wing is located. The “Bunker House” (now on Winter St.) was where the owner/innkeeper lived. It has been noted that throughout many renovations and enlargement projects, Mr. Chirgwin did all of his own plumbing. In a 1927 Vineyard Gazette article about the owner, the hotel was reported to include 60 rooms, including the main building and “three other detached houses…necessary to accommodate the summer guests”.
Guests would come for a month at a time, or for the entire summer in those early years… and over the years the Colonial Inn played host to many rich or famous people. During the Inn’s first summer of 1911, the Chirgwin family was honored to host Dr. Charles E. Banks after having just published his 3 volume, 1200 page history of Martha’s Vineyard. In July of 1934, the Colonial Inn hosted the celebrated business magnate, Howard Hughes (who records show was arrested for speeding while visiting the Island that summer). In the 40’s W. Somerset Maugham resided at the Colonial Inn during WW II when he would summer on the Island. Other guests of note include Jacqueline Bouvier (as a child), John F. Kennedy (as a young man), Joan Walsh Auglund, and I.M. Pei.
Thomas Chirgwin passed away in 1940, but the Chirgwin family continued to own and operate the Inn until Feb. 1964 when it was sold to Island Properties Inc. (Dr Alvin Strock & Dr Moses Strock & their families). The group owned a great deal of island property at the time, including the Island Country Club where hotel guests then had privileges. Two years after their purchase, the Strock’s announced a “rebirth” of the Colonial Inn with the hiring of Mr & Mrs Ivan Drechsler Jr. as new operators. Prior to their hiring, the Inn had operated for a number of seasons with “limited dining facilities”. The Drechsler’s recreated breakfast and lunch meal service in a gourmet style never before tried on the island, and that was thoroughly enjoyed by the guests of the then 50 room Inn. They also came up with the creative idea of naming rooms at the Inn after some of Somerset Maugham’s books. The Colonial Inn’s roof deck was hence christened “The Moon and Six-pence Terrace”.
In 1967 the Inn was sold again, this time to M/M Dale Pelow. This was also the year that an “all alcohol” license was given to the Colonial. The Pelow’s reopened the main dining room of the Inn after it had fallen again into not functioning on a full schedule for several seasons. Their ownership also began another period of modernization and refurbishment throughout the complex.
Mr & Mrs Pelow sold the Inn to Peter Martell & a small group of island investors in 1973. During the ensuing years the Inn’s former dining rooms transformed into a 500 person capacity nightclub with live music many nights. In 1983 the group went to court to challenge B1 zoning, hoping to add retail shops to the complex. In 1984/85 the group reduced the on-site nightclub from a 500 person capacity to a 50 person restaurant, and eventually retail space was created within the complex to replace the large nightclub.
In 1986 the Colonial Inn was sold to Grove Associates, an investment group out of Hartford. Extensive renovations were undertaken during the late 80’s which included redoing all of the plumbing and electric in the buildings, and creating private bathrooms in every room.
In 1999 the Colonial Inn was purchased by ULF Edgartown LLC, and once again began a series of upgrades and renovations in an effort to reestablish the hotel as an upscale offering in downtown Edgartown. During this period, the hotel also repurposed some of its retail space into a meeting room, spa, and fitness room. In 2006 the group redeveloped the “Porch Wing” of what had been a 43 room hotel, into the first fractional real estate offering on Martha’s Vineyard, known as the Edgartown Residence Club. The main building of the Inn remained hotel rooms and the 34 room complex now included 6 luxury one and two bedroom suites.
In Dec. 2009 the hotel was purchased by Martha’s Vineyard Colonial Inn, LLC. As the hotel observes its centennial birthday in 2011, it is once again also marking a rebirth. The hotel was renovated over the winter in cool tones and a crisp “beach modern” décor and has reopened for the season with a new name! The new Vineyard Square Hotel & Suites is a nod to the evolution of this distinguished 100 year old hotel into a modern hub of activity in the center of Edgartown. Although the name is new, the staff of the Vineyard Square Hotel & Suites will be continuing the long standing traditions of exceptional hospitality and service begun by the Chirgwin’s in 1911.