“For years, the DeWitt was acknowledged to be one of northern New England’s best hotels. Under the fine management of Mrs. Pattee, later Mrs. Charles Day, the DeWitt dining room on the second floor of the hotel was noted not only for its good food, but also for its excellent service and hospitality. On holidays, this dining room had the atmosphere of a big party, because family dinners gave the room a most pleasant air. Now, no trace of this once gracious hotel can be found, but it will remain in Lewiston’s memory and it will take years for Lewistonians to stop calling the corner of Pine and Park Sts. ‘the DeWitt corner.’” Lewiston Journal Magazine Section, Saturday, Aug. 26, 1967
Before Park Street was called Park, it was known as Albion Street. It came to a dead-end at a gully and brook. To the south stood a wooded hill thick with tall pines. That rural hilltop was selected as the site of the DeWitt in 1851.
In the 1930s, George Barron, a Lewiston city engineer and later engineer for Franklin Co., found record books dated 1851 proving that the DeWitt was started on June 27, 1851. Then newly organized Lewiston Water Power Company, established by local entrepreneurs in 1848, leveled the hill and converted the brook into a sewer, according to an article by Mary Louise Stetson written on March 30, 1946. At the same time, the power company was blasting out stone during construction of the canals that were then used to build a wall to keep the Androscoggin from flooding to the east, the Lewiston-side of the river.
On July 30, 1851, Lewiston Water Power Co. arranged for the land to be cleared and leveled on the hill where the brick hotel would stand. Barron estimated, according to a 1965 Sun Journal article, that the hotel cost between $35,000 – $40,000 (according to the Consumer Price Index, that would be roughly $1.2 million today). The contractor for the project was named Maloney, but little is known about him today.
In 1861, perhaps in an effort to restore some of the natural beauty destroyed by the leveling and subsequent construction of the DeWitt, the Franklin Company donated an eight-acre parcel of land directly opposite the new hotel. Franklin Company was the business interest, which took over the Lewiston Water Power Co. in 1857 when local residents ran out of capital. Franklin Co. gave the wooded square of land to the city of Lewiston with strict instructions that it be turned into a city park. Their gift came with two caveats: “It should always be kept open as a park and that within two years the city should spend at least $5,000 for grading, fencing, etc.”
A sketch dated Dec. 14 1851 shows the hotel’s original layout. The main entrance was situated on Pine Street and there was another entrance off Park marked “for boarders and ladies.” An old engraving at the door stated that I. J. Carr was “proprietor” of the establishment. Just left of the main entrance on the first floor was a barber shop, reading room and a smoking room: to the right were the baggage room, kitchen and dining room. The second floor held 11 bedrooms and the big public dining room for guests, which later became the banquet room when the hotel was renovated in 1899. The third floor had 23 bedrooms and the fourth floor held 25. It is believed that the fifth floor was added in 1868, but there are no firm accounts of the exact date.
The hotel was originally designed to be a place for mill owners to stay, in the style and comfort to which they were accustomed, while in town on business. It quickly became a prominent and well-respected monument to Lewiston’s development into a booming manufacturing center. A Lewiston Evening Journal newspaper dated July 28, 1873 reports the death of DeWitt House manager G.G. Waterhouse with solemnity and reverence and speaks to the stature he, and the hotel, held in the community.
In 1899, the hotel was extensively renovated both inside and out. It was the first major renovation since it had been built over 45 years earlier (aside from the addition of the elevator made in 1892). The Lewiston Board of Trade held a banquet on Dec 5. 1899 to celebrate the renewed DeWitt and it was noted that all of the “prominent citizenry” of Lewiston was in attendance.
Shortly after the hotel reopened, the hotel narrowly escaped a potentially disastrous fire on Dec 1. 1909. At noon, one of the waitresses in the hotel dining room, which was then located on the second floor, noticed smoke rising from a coffee urn. The fire chief at that time, J. Moriarty called in Auburn’s fire trucks and the streets surrounding the hotel were said to be “jammed with people, gaping and coughing, with water running around their feet.” It was a bitterly cold winter day and the water froze almost instantly, adding another challenge to the daunting task of dousing the growing blaze.
The headline records: “Guests had an exciting time recovering belongings from burning building” although imagine the adjective “exciting” to be written with a hint of sarcasm. At the time, there were a number of permanent residents of the hotel, including James A. O’Brien, manager of the Empire Theater at 137 Main Street, who, together with agents of the hotel, managed to remove all of his family’s trunks and belongings before any damage had occurred.
At the time, it was described as “Lewiston’s largest and best-known hotel, and one of the best in Maine.” The fire, it was later determined, had started in the boiler room beneath the kitchen, a part of the three-story wing of the Middle Street side of the hotel, and grew. The fire was eventually contained and extinguished but not before, as the Lewiston Evening Journal reported, there amassed $40,000 worth of damage to the property by flames, smoke and water.
As the DeWitt aged, her reputation in the city did not fray and she retained her dignity, even as her wallpaper and carpets faded with time. Joline Froton, born and raised in Lewiston, remembers the DeWitt as being very elegant, though somewhat old-fashioned, when she was a young girl.
Froton attended several big events at the DeWitt in high school and can still picture the hotel as it looked in the late 1950s. “I remember walking into the lobby. I remember seeing the grandeur of it. But I remember old,” she adds. “The dining room had, of course, the cloth tablecloths and the china and the silverware. The chandeliers. You just felt special when you went there,” she said. Even though it was older and a little run-down, it was still seen as an elegant structure. “I don’t remember it ever looking or feeling abandoned. It was still always The DeWitt Hotel.”
At some point in 1964, after Froton had graduated from Lewiston High School, Franklin Company took the property away from the Lewiston Hotel Corp, which held the lease. It was then known as the DeWitt Motor Hotel, though most people in town simply referred to it as DeWitt.
Then, on Dec. 26 1964, a sign was placed in the Pine Street entrance door stating: “Hotel Closed, Per Order of the Franklin Company.” According to an article by Norm Keneborous in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Feb. 1, 1966, the closing of the hotel was “abrupt” and a complete surprise to the public and patrons of the hotel.
Daniel Harris was hired by Franklin Co. to oversee the closing of the hotel. Original plans for demo called for the hotel to be razed by April 1, 1965, then June 15, but the work never started. The leaseholder, Lewiston Hotel Corp. tried in vain to raise funds to renovate the hotel, but Franklin Co. ultimately determined “an obsolete hotel is not economical to operate.” The hotel’s 16 permanent residents and several businesses were given 30 days to vacate.
On Wednesday, Sept. 22, just after 2 p.m., the second-floor dining room wall of the DeWitt collapsed, sending bricks and debris crashing onto Pine Street. After a brief conference, Lewiston city officials determined that the hotel was a “public safety hazard” and had to be immediately razed. A front loader arrived the next day to knock down the wall and that section of the hotel.
On orders from city officials, crews from the Lewiston Crushed Stone Co. began the demolition of the 115-year-old structure. She didn’t go quietly, however, and the razing became an elaborate and drawn-out ordeal for the city. Several times the fire department had to be brought in to use their hoses to quell the enormous walls of dust that arose from the process.
A letter to the editor dated Oct. 1965 describes one local woman’s frustration with the demolition process: “Now, what i want to say is that what the City, the DeWitt razing contractors, doesn’t seem to be able to accomplish the little kids of Lewiston seem to be able to do. Every night, as I look out my window, I see countless kids arriving with hand-fashioned carts, wheel barrows, professional conveyances et all. And what happens? Why, they just attack that — on Pine St.”
The final physical remnant of the DeWitt was finally carted off on Oct. 22, 1965. Had the hotel fallen into disrepair today, one imagines that many organizations, like the Historic Preservation Committee or the Androscoggin Historical Society, would have rushed to its aid. At the very least, the hotel would probably have been declared a National Historic Landmark, which might have saved it from its final resting place in the city dump.
Today, the inauspicious wooden Lewiston Sun Journal structure squats where the five-story brick hotel used to stand and where, before that, 50-foot pines stretched to the sky on a small hill in a rural farming community on the river.
- (1873, July 28). Lewiston Evening Journal.
- (1909, December 1). Lewiston Evening Journal.
- DeWitt Hotel Closed, To Be Razed. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2016, from https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=oQQVFBP0nzwC&dat=19641226&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
- (1966, February 1). Lewiston Daily Sun.
- Stetson, M. L. (n.d.). Site of DeWitt Hotel Was Once High Wooded Hill. Lewiston Journal Magazine Section. a
- Kelsey, Albert Hannibal. Mill Builder for the Moguls, Doc. 174, Page 4
- (Publishers), Stanwood and Co., “The Lewiston and Auburn Directory, Containing the Names of the Inhabitants, Their Occupation and Places of Business etc., With a History of Lewiston and Auburn” (1860). City of Lewiston, Maine. Paper 3. http://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/lewiston/3