"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: The Elmonte House

The Elmonte House in Great Village was built in 1899 to replace the Londonderry Hotel, which was destroyed by fire on 5 December 1898. The Londonderry Hotel had stood on the same site since 1861. Indeed, there had been public houses and inns in the Great Village area since 1807. The convergence of roads in Great Village made it a stopping place for many travellers.

The Elmonte, built and operated by Mr. and Mr. Ralph Smith, was a gracious establishment, three stories high, with large airy, elegantly furnished rooms. Its dining room rivalled the best hotels in Truro and Halifax. One of the hotel’s unique features was the “Sample Room,” a long, low building where travelling salesmen brought their wares to display. Merchants from miles around stopped in to view these wares and place orders. The Elmonte also burned, in 1932 – and with it went a long tradition of hoteliers in Great Village. This tradition was revived when the Blaikie House Bed and Breakfast was established.

In mid-September 1917, Elizabeth Bishop’s wealthy paternal grandparents, John and Sarah Bishop, arrived in Great Village intent on taking their granddaughter back to Worcester, MA. Being the standard to which they were accustomed, the Bishops resided at the Elmonte for several weeks before departing with Elizabeth in October.

Elizabeth Bishop never directly mentions the Elmonte House in her published writing, but, because she was an inveterate traveller her entire life, she spent a good deal of time in hotels in many locations. Often when in New York City, she stayed in residential hotels. In her fable-like story “In Prison,” which explores the idea that we all inhabit some kind of prison and that the key to a productive life is to find the right kind of prison to inhabit, the narrator notes, “The hotel existence I now lead might be compared in many respects to prison life, I believe: there are the corridors, the cellular rooms, the large, unrelated group of people with different purposes in being there that animate every one of them; but it still displays great differences.” (Collected Prose, 182)

The narrator’s catalogue of the kinds of “decorations” that adorn hotel rooms (“unattractive wallpaper,” “Turkey carpets,” “brass fire extinguishers,” and so on) might have been inspired by the New York City hotels she frequented in the 1930s, when she wrote this story. For example, one of Bishop’s extant visual images is a drawing of her room at the Murray Hill Hotel in New York City, done on hotel stationary, with its elegant stamp, around which Bishop has drawn the picture (so that the ornate stamp looks like an ornament on the dresser). The picture is dominate by a large upholstered chair and a floor lamp. The close perspective of the drawing gives a sense of confinement, such as the narrator seeks in “In Prison,” in those “cellular rooms.”

However, one can’t help but wonder if the Elmonte House was an essential prototype for the idea of “hotel” in Bishop’s iconography, especially given that a major part of its clientele were those travelling salesmen, who brought all manner of wares from the four corners of the world to merchants and customers in Great Village. Bishop encountered a similar hotel in Ouro Prêto, Pouso do Chico Rey owned by her friend Lilli Correia de Araújo. It was from a window in this hotel that Bishop watched and overheard passers-by stop at a fountain: “The seven ages of man are talkative / and soiled and thirsty.” (Complete Poems 154). The thirst at the Elmonte would have been quenched with water, too, as Great Village was a strong temperance town!

One other aspect about the Elmonte which would have intrigued Bishop was that it burned. Many buildings burned in Great Village over the decades (which was not that unusual in Nova Scotia): the first Presbyterian church, one of the early filling stations, various barns, and various hotels, including the Elmonte. Fire is another central image in Bishop – it arcs a trajectory across her entire life from the Great Salem Fire in 1914 and the fires following the Halifax Harbour Explosion in 1917, to the fires caused by fire balloons during Carnaval in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s. Bishop was not in Nova Scotia the year the Elmonte burned, but she would have heard about it from her Aunt Grace, who was living there at the time.

Most of us pay little heed to hotels, but for Bishop, with her “no detail too small” obsession, even places of transience – or especially places of transience – always caught her attention. And when those places of transience had existed for years, or eons (the Elmonte, Murray Hill, Chico Rey and its fountain), all the more intriguing to her restless eye “looking, looking, looking” for some place of permanence.


Ed. note: I have added links for the Blaikie House and the Murray Hill above. I assume the latter link is to the same building Bishop knew, though these days it is what is called a "boutique hotel." Lilli's Pouso do Chico Rey is no longer operating, but there is a hotel called Pouso do Chico Rei in Ouro Preto, and I link to it, simply to give a sense of that glorious city, which I had the privilege of visiting in 1999. The little inn in which I stayed during that trip, which was just down the road from Bishop's own house, Casa Mariana, was delightful, but unfortunately I have forgotten its name.

1 comment:

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