Joel Bedor remembers the day he and business partner Wayne Presby became owners of New England’s most famous white elephant—the 200-room, five-story Mount Washington Hotel in the village of Bretton Woods, N.H., part of the town of Carroll (pop. 643).
It was June 28, 1991. The massive 1902 hotel, in bankruptcy after years of decline, had been ordered under the gavel. Bedor, a certified public accountant and self-confessed “history freak,” had formed a partnership of four local families and scraped up the required $250,000 deposit to bid on the national landmark, host to celebrities, presidents, and princesses.
As onlookers in the hotel’s rotunda conservatory looked on, bids jumped in unnerving quarter million increments, past $2 million, then to $3 million. Up against some big-time resort companies, Bedor thought his family group was wasting its time.
But at $3 million the bidding stalled. Presby, a free-spirited attorney and avid skier, broke the silence and the pattern—he bid $3.15 million. The auctioneer grumbled, wanting a $250,000 jump. Presby held his ground, the crowd held its breath, and everyone waited for the next bid. It never came. With a bang of the gavel, the families had themselves a hotel—and an almost incomprehensible challenge.
Sitting in the now-restored conservatory, looking out the tall windows at 6,288-foot Mount Washington, Bedor smiles as he recalls the moment. “It was, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”
The partnership became owners of a rundown relic of a golden age in tourism, as well as a hotel that hosted the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference in 1944. The hostelry was the magnificent folly of railroad and coal magnate Joseph Stickney, a Granite State native. Faced with white stucco, it took 250 Italian craftsmen and 1,200 laborers two years to build. Wrapped by a 900-foot veranda and filled with Tiffany glass and intricate plaster, it won instant acclaim, the capstone of some two dozen mountain hotels built in New Hampshire early in the 20th century.
But its extravagant size and ornate construction eventually became a maintenance nightmare. By the late 1980s, it was draining $2 million to $3 million a year, and many wondered if a bunch of locals could succeed where previous hoteliers hadn’t.
“We got a bank to step off the cliff with us,” quips Catherine Bedor, who handled the marketing after the purchase. “There were a lot of bets we couldn’t do it.”
The families have spent the last decade proving doubters wrong, relying on common sense, thrift, and hard work.
Presby, an “eternal optimist” who in 1983 joined with Bedor to buy the nearby Mount Washington Cog Railway, says a mix of talents and lack of egos helped. Having strong local ties, they felt a respectful awe at being entrusted with such a monument and never considered failure an option. “You never forget where you come from,” he says.
Together with the Bedor and Presby families, Robert Clement, the manager of the cog railway, and the Eames family, which owns property in nearby Littleton, they overcame many obstacles and reunited the hotel’s historic landholdings—sold off piecemeal in 1988 in a failed development scheme Presby calls “an absolute tragedy.”
In 1993, they bought back the 27-hole golf course. In 1997, they acquired the 950 acres containing the hotel’s horse stables and sports club. Later that year, they bought back the Bretton Woods alpine ski area and its facilities.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, 1999, the Mount Washington Hotel opened for the first time ever in winter, following a two-year, $2.1 million winterization.
The partners admit they’re as astonished as anyone that Joseph Stickney’s marvelous hotel is still open and functioning.
“It does choke you up,” says Catherine Bedor. “It never occurred to us that it’s a miracle, but as time goes on, we’ve discovered it is.”