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Friday, April 27 News

Fairfield 375: Once-grand Fairfield hotels suffer inglorious demise

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.

The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.

The Fairfield House, once known as a very fashionable "place to be," was built in 1848 at the corner of Old Post and Beach roads. It quickly became a luxury hotel for summer vacationers. Fairfield was already a popular resort in the early 1800s, lauded for its beaches where summer tourists spent their days, returning to the grandiose Old Post Road hotels and homes at night. The visitors came to Fairfield from all over: Boston, Philadelphia and, of course, New York City.

Claiming to have the largest ballroom in the state, the Fairfield House also had more than 100 rooms and a bowling alley. Managed by a man who had previously operated hotels in New York City and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the hotel was a popular spot for all-season amusements, hosting band concerts in the summer and sleigh ride parties in the winter.

The building continued to be used as a hotel, trading hands several times, and later was renamed the St. Marc Hotel by one of its owners. The hotel was purchased in 1872 by Louis Cleveland, the brother of President Grover Cleveland, and then by George Wells.

When Wells died in 1894, the reputation of the hostelry began to decline when two Bridgeport promoters took over operations. Some locals became concerned about the free flow of alcohol there as well as its reputation for hosting women of ill repute. The once-beautiful and prestigious hotel met an ignoble end when it was raided by police and closed.

Another 19th-century hotel in Fairfield -- the Unquowa Hotel -- stood at 808 Old Post Road. It started life in 1868 as a private mansion owned by the Fairfield industrialist James Mott, whose business made parts for carriages. He sold the mansion in 1879 after he suffered some financial setbacks. The large old house then became the Hargrove School for Boys for a time, finally becoming a hotel in 1913 when Harriet S. Donovan opened the Unquowa Hotel there.

The hotel, although not as grandiose as the Fairfield House had been down the street, had a public restaurant serving lunch and dinner. It was listed in a 1920 directory of hotels as a first-class house with rooms for "$3 and up." The hotel was also a meeting place for community organizations.

The Unquowa Hotel began to deteriorate after it was sold to Charles J. McCarthy Jr. in 1966, and the building was condemned in 1991 after a partial collapse. There was a community effort to save and restore the building when it was purchased by the Unquowa Hotel Preservation Partnership Inc., which was established in 1991. But the effort failed and the once-comfortable hotel was demolished in 1994.