Hygeia House harbors Island heritage
By Karen Rubin
We left our car and our cares behind at the parking lot by the dock in Montauk, Long Island and boarded the Viking Fleet ferry for the under-two hour ocean voyage to Block Island, Rhode Island, where time slows to the speed of a bicycle.
Minutes after docking at New Harbor, we were on our bikes and had only to peddle a short distance before we had arrived at our haven on Block Island: the newly restored and reopened Hygeia House, owned and operated by a living link to the island’s first 16 settlers (and two who came to the New World on the Mayflower), and a family that had played a key role in the island’s history.
No doubt if James Michener were writing about Block Island, he would likely use the Starr family and their Hygeia House bed-and-breakfast as the centerpiece. For it is this family – and even this inn – that plays a role throughout Block Island’s history, going back to the original 16 settlers and through the significant events of this small, isolated community of just 900 year-round residents. This family, with the names that mark many of the streets and landmarks – Champlin, Payne – also brings the personal intrigue that makes a novel so interesting-such as how the inn was willed not to a family member, but to a grand uncle’s mistress, and how it was ultimately was restored to the Champlin family and to its former use.
The Hygeia House, a Victorian inn which was completely restored and reopened in 1999 by Charles Champlin (“Champs”) Starr and his wife, Lisa Starr, as a 10-room bed-and-breakfast, proved as much a haven for our island getaway, as an attraction.
We had no sooner entered the Hygeia House than we were treated to a tour and a history lesson by Champs.
The Hygeia House was built as an annex to the grand Hygeia Hotel that was constructed in 1883, and the heyday of Block Island tourism (it burned down in 1916, leaving only the Hygeia annex). The Hygeia Hotel was the idea of Dr. Charles Champlin, Jr. who believed in the restorative benefits of salt air, naming the hotel after the Greek goddess of health. He maintained his own office in what is now the Hygeia House, which he converted to a guesthouse in 1907 (there are interesting artifacts on display from Dr. Champlin’s medical practice).
It is hard to keep Champs’ family straight, despite the fact that each room is specifically named and has photos or objects that would be appropriate to that relative (if you stay long enough, I am sure you wind up feeling like you know the family better than your own). But if you get stuck, you can check the family tree that is painted on a rear staircase (the only new architectural element that Champs added).
There is “Uncle El” (named after the doctor’s brother) who became a U.S. Senator, and was responsible for winning legislation to open New Harbor (where our ferry from Montauk came in) in 1898 (it was built by the Payne family). You can see his law books in the book case (they were found still in the building). He was one of four sons of Champs’ great great grandmother, who also has a room named for her.
Then, there is Ray Payne, Sr. who built the steamship dock. A Champlin married a Payne, who was a General Manager of the hotel, and consolidated the families’ strengths. Since there was no taxi service in those days, the enterprising Champlins created a horse trolley service to take the guests from the boats to the hotel.
Champs is the 11th generation of Block Islanders and 13th generation from the Mayflower (he is related to John Holland, who was saved from drowning after he fell overboard, and Rev. William Brewster). The family migrated with the Roger Williams colony as a protest to the religious persecution they felt by the Puritans; Block Island was settled in 1661.
Located 12 miles off the Rhode Island mainland, Block Island really developed with tourism as a result of the prosperity of the Industrial Age and many of the grand hotels were built in the Victorian era. But soon after the Hygeia Hotel burned down in 1916, tourism to the island took a battering with World War I. Then came Prohibition, the Great Depression, the 1938 hurricane which wiped out the fishing fleet, and finally World War II.
Tourism to the island only started up again in the 1960s, but in those days, there would only be one boat a day, taking 30 people and two cars at a time (a special, second boat on Fridays was called the “daddy boat” because it brought fathers to join their families staying for the summer). By then, Champs’ father was working for the Department of Agriculture on the mainland, and he was one of the fathers who would come on the Daddy boat to the island, where the family stayed the summer.
Now, there are nine ferry trips a day in summer, with each boat carrying as many as 1,350 passengers, from Pt. Judith, RI., New London, Ct., Montauk, L.I., Newport, Some 4,000 day-trippers come each day (you can take the ferry from Montauk at 9 a.m., arriving just before 11 a.m. and return at 4:30 p.m.). (Ferry schedules and information on traveling to Block Island can be obtained from http://www.blockisland.com/travel/).
The inn had been left to his Great Uncle Carter’s mistress, and had been vacant for nearly 20 years. When she died at the age of 90-plus, her relatives offered it to Champs. His wife Lisa, the former tourism director for Block Island, felt the island could use a 10-room bed-and-breakfast, so they brought their talents together in painstakingly restoring the Hygeia House to its former charm and glory.
Champlin was a sea captain for an oil tanker for 18 years, and when he tired of that, became a carpenter for five years. Were it not that he could do the reconstruction himself, he said, he would not have attempted it. As he noted, it would have been cheaper to tear down the inn and build from scratch. But in restoring-skillfully and painstakingly recreating the mansards, for example-they also added important amenities, like private bathrooms, electricity (only one room was electrified), individually controlled thermostats, sprinkler system, and reduced the number of guest rooms from 19 to 10, making each bigger-more of a suite, with a separate sitting room which proves excellent for families traveling with children.
The islanders were thrilled and chipped in to help, and Champs confesses that when he got depressed over the course of the 10 1/2 months of restoration work, somebody would come by and honk the horn and cheer him to his task. For its historical integrity, the Starrs won proclamations by the state of Rhode Island. The house is now being registered on the state’s and National Register of Historic Buildings.
The house was loaded with family effects and furnishings, but since it had been virtually abandoned for 20 years, much had left the house. But as they were restoring the building, a call went out to recover any items that might have come out of the house, “no questions asked.” A mortar and pestle his great grandfather had used came back; it had been used for a door stop. An original ledger form the Hotel Hygeia (complete with typo) is also on display, open to a page with the name of a guest, Belle Silverberg from Newark (his wife, Lisa, is also a Silverberg). There is a sense that destiny has been fulfilled, as all these objects find their way back.
The rooms take on the incarnation of a family member, furnished with personal items, letters, photographs, even furniture. In the room that is named for Dr. J.C. Champlin (the furniture was his), there is a case such as you would see in a doctor’s office with his medical bag, business cards, mortar and pestle, and a letter to him from 1900. There is also an interesting letter from an Undertaker, which is framed.
The rooms named for Uncle Carter and his wife, Mae, keep with the tradition that during their life together, they had two separate apartments in Providence with no connecting door, so when Champs was selecting rooms, Uncle Carter’s and Mae’s are next to each other, but separated by a staircase. “Tradition,” he says.
Modest and unpretentious, its size and amenities make the Hygeia House superior as a bed-and-breakfast (which can tend to make you feel uncomfortable for the lack of privacy, cramped for lack of space, and a feeling of imposing on the family). When the Starrs restored the inn, they reduced the number of rooms from 19 to 10, making most of the rooms suites with a separate sitting room with a trundle bed or sofa (which can accommodate one or two children), and each with a private bathroom.
This makes the Hygeia House unusually accommodating for families who want to enjoy the distinctive experience of a bed-and-breakfast accommodation, instead of a commercial hotel or motel. Bed-and-breakfasts are special because you get to live with a local family (and here, children are apt to meet the Starrs’ own young children), and also have a chance to sit around (such as at breakfast or in the parlor) and share experiences with other guests; if you want to watch television, you have to share (since there are no televisions in the rooms) and most people like to sit around and read or play board games. However, because most bed-and-breakfast establishments are typically large private homes with personal artifacts (typically delicate or antiques), most tend to discourage young children altogether.
The Hygeia House is ideally located, perhaps even uniquely, so that it is perched on a hill exactly between the New and Old Harbors. There are waterviews from every room in the place (most places can only offer water views from one side). It is also easy to get about (another consideration if you have children): you can walk to the Town Beach, about one-half mile down the road, where there are facilities and lifeguards; bike about one or two miles into Old Harbor (the only real village on the island, where most of the restaurants and shops are concentrated).
The Starrs have two kayaks available for guest use and their own dock on a gentle tributary that goes out toward the marina at New Harbor or into Harbor Pond that goes almost to Old Harbor. They hope to offer bikes at some point.
Literally around the corner from the Hygeia House is Payne’s kayak rental ($20/hour plus $5/hour after, 401-466-5572) with a vast selection of one and two-person kayaks for rent. This is just marvelous for families, even with young children, because the water is gentle, and there are several different places to paddle, and you do not have to ferry the kayaks anywhere, but just slip them down into the water.
Breakfast was fairly modest, and would be an area for improvement as the Starrs get more experienced as operators. While Champs is anxious to assuage any pretense of the Hygeia House as having the amenities of an inn or a hotel, still, bed-and-breakfast operators usually take enormous pride in displaying culinary artistry in serving breakfast. On our visit, the Hygeia House provided a continental style service-boxed cereals, English muffins, breads–set out from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for guests to help themselves. During the day, you can help yourself to coffee or tea, and there is a refrigerator for guest use, which is stocked with ice tea and iced coffee and cold water.
As one grateful guest wrote, “A glorious getaway. Even our two little ones were at peace.”
Great grandfather Champlin would have been pleased.
Rates range from $65 to $135 in off-season (Nov. 1-April 30); $100 to $180 in shoulder season (May & Oct.), $175-$270 in June & September, and $210-$315 in peak season (July-Aug..); children six and over welcome. Hygeia House, PO Box 464, Block Island, RI, 401-466-9616,www.hygeiahouse.com
For further information about Block Island, call the Block Island Tourism Council, 401-466-5200 or visit www.blockisland.com.
Pix1 Hygeia House, an inviting bed-and-breakfast, is a link to Block Island’s heritage (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
Pix2 Finding remote beaches is one of the many pleasures of a visit to Block Island (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
Pix3 A visit to Block Island gives you time to share thoughts (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
Pix4 Kayaking is a delightful way to explore (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
Pix5 Biking around Block Island brings you to dramatic scenes, such as this lighthouse, set on a high bluff, which can be visited (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
Pix6 Block Island’s idyllic landscape (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online on Family Travel Network (http://www.familytravelnetwork.com/articles/rubin_main.asp).