New Book Celebrates the Storied Legacy of the Providence Biltmore
Everyone from bootleggers to Buddy Cianci has graced the walls of the “city’s hotel,” and author Amanda Quay Blount has the receipts.
Fresh on the heels of the 100th anniversary of the Graduate Providence — formerly the Providence Biltmore Hotel — a new book delves into the notoriety, glamour and history of the city’s opulent landmark.
Some of the state’s — and the world’s — most famous people have stayed within its walls: John F. Kennedy, Buddy Cianci, the Rolling Stones, but throughout its century of anchoring the downtown area there’s been no definitive guide to its history or lore.
Amanda Quay Blount, a Providence resident and self-described history nerd, moved to the city with her husband in 2018 and immediately took to the streets, admiring the architecture and history of her new hometown.
“I’m fascinated by the architecture of different eras,” says the thirty-seven year old, who heads a literacy nonprofit in Attleboro, Massachusetts. “Providence is a gold mine for all of those things, so I spent a lot of time just walking around the city and being in awe of how beautiful everything is and how much history is embedded in each of these incredible structures that we’ve preserved here.”
Her father told her to check out the Biltmore, since it was such a city landmark. One day she wandered into the lobby, struck by the ornate fixtures, gilded ceiling and famous glass elevator. Fascinated, she contacted libraries, trying to learn more about the building’s history but discovering there were no books devoted to the hotel.
So she decided to write one herself. During the pandemic, she pored over history books and old Providence Journal stories to produce Meet Me at the Biltmore: 100 Years at Providence’s Most Storied Hotel. It’s available by presale now at biltmorebook.com; it will be released by Stillwater Books in October.
Blount recently spoke to Rhode Island Monthly about moving to Providence, her research methods and writing a book during a pandemic while also running a nonprofit and raising her five-month-old daughter Barrett. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did this project come about? Did it stem from your love of old buildings?
When we first moved to Providence, my father actually had said to me, “Oh, Providence, such a great city. You have to go downtown and check out the Biltmore, it’s a really cool old hotel and it has this really cool plaque for a high-water mark of this flood from the 1930s.” So that’s sort of how that started. That piqued my interest.
We were living on the East Side at the time and I wandered down into downtown and into the front door of the now-Graduate Hotel (at the time it was the Biltmore) and I was just in awe. Anyone I think who walks into the lobby of the Biltmore feels that way. You look up and you’re just blown away by the beauty of the ceiling and the ornate fixtures and the really beautiful columns — it’s such a lovely and special place.
And so I was fascinated by it and I sort of petered along. And I was reading more about Providence history and I read a great book by David Brussat called Lost Providence about buildings that no longer exist. And I started thinking to myself, man, I’d love to read a book about the Biltmore. I think it probably has an incredible history that I don’t know enough about. So I contacted the library and the Providence Preservation Society and asked are there any books that include the Biltmore or any books about the Biltmore, and the answer was just sort of a flat no, no one’s written about the Biltmore. There’s been a couple of mentions of it in architectural reviews of the city, but no comprehensive history written.
So I said to myself, well, maybe I’ll start doing some research and see if there’s anything interesting about it. Maybe there isn’t, and that’s why it hasn’t been written. This was in the fall of 2020, and we all had a lot of extra time on our hands. We weren’t going out to restaurants or doing anything, so I hunkered down and started doing some Google searching and one thing led to another and I ended up amassing many thousands of articles about the Biltmore and decided that I needed to do something with them.
Can you tell me a little about your research? Where did you go and what sorts of things did you look for?
My research process started with the things I already had — I kind of went backward. One can access the Providence Journal archives from 1981 onward through the public library, so the more recent history of the hotel was accessible to me online, so I started there.
I should say I started with the New York Times archives because we have a subscription to the New York Times, and I’m from the New Jersey/New York area, so the New York Times to me is still an important publication. So I started there and the first article I found related to the Providence Biltmore Hotel was prior to its construction being completed. It was a story about a taxi driver who was injured because a steel worker dropped a rivet from the top of the construction site of the Biltmore and it went flying through the air, tore through the top of the cloth-topped jitney taxi and damaged the driver’s leg. So he ended up going to the hospital. So there was this short blurb in the New York Times in 1921 — I went down this huge genealogy rabbit hole when I found out who the taxi driver was. The things you can do when you’re bored — before you have children!
So that really got me thinking. This hotel, for it to be featured in the New York Times, there must have been something really important about Providence. Why else would it be in the New York Times? And then that led me to really dive into Rhode Island history, better understanding the history of Providence as the manufacturing hub of the world.
So I got really excited about that, and I realized that I needed access to the Providence Journal from that era. So I called the Community College of Rhode Island after digging around to try and find who had this database. CCRI is awesome. So it’s November 2020. No buildings are open, the college buildings aren’t open. But, as a researcher, they gave me access to their database through their internal Wi-Fi, and all I had to do was go sit in their parking lot [of the Liston campus] and access their Wi-Fi through my car. They were amazing. They were all working from home, too. I probably spent two to three hundred hours in their parking lot, in my car, on my laptop, pulling PDFs of the Providence Journal archives.
The story of the Biltmore started to come into focus for me as not just the story of a hotel but the story of Providence as a city. And at the time it was one of the most important cities in the United States. I became incredibly fascinated by it. I let the story just sort of unfold. And through my research in the archives and with other periodicals and a few books, I was able to piece together the conception of the hotel all the way through the present day.
I love the mental picture of you sitting in the parking lot of CCRI with your laptop. That’s really dedication.
You know, I don’t know how to write a book because I’ve never done it before, so this is all new to me. The thing that I found most challenging about using primary source material like newspaper articles is that nobody wraps it up and puts it into context for you. I started at about 1916-1915 I think, because in 1922 there was an article that said “when this project was first conceptualized by the chamber of commerce in 1915” or something along those lines, so you know what that does as an investigative journalist. So I’m back in 1915 in the archives now and I find that an editorial had been written that said Providence was lagging behind all the other bigger cities of the world by not having a luxury hotel. So in my mind, I have to make the decision: Is this the beginning of the story?
View this post on Instagram
That’s so interesting. Was it a piece in the Providence Journal that was calling for a hotel?
The first piece of evidence I could find where the hotel was sort of demanded was a letter from a theater owner downtown, Edward Albee. He wrote a letter to the chamber of commerce, essentially saying that people were not staying in Providence. Businesspeople from all over the world were coming to Providence to do business, but they weren’t staying in the city because there were no proper accommodations for affluent folks. They were getting back on the train and going back to Connecticut or New York or Boston, and it was hurting the theater industry, in his mind. Downtown businesses — mostly vaudeville theaters at the time — were really hurt by that drain at the end of the day. In his mind, if the city would build a luxury hotel, the theaters and the other entertainment houses of the day — the opera houses and the lecture halls and the things that existed downtown then — would be greatly, greatly supported. Plus, it would be good for all commerce.
The chamber of commerce read his letter at a meeting and made the determination that the city did indeed need a bigger, more luxurious hotel. At the time there were a number of hotels [in the city], but none that were up to snuff. None like the Waldorf-Astoria or some of the others they would have compared them to at the time.
Did the Biltmore — or the Graduate, now — have any records you could look through?
The hotel has been amazing. The Graduate folks have been incredible. Even though there were some opinions about them changing the name of the hotel, they really value the history and the historical significance of the hotel.
The hotel itself does not have a lot of its own historical documents. That has nothing to do with the Graduate management; it’s just that the hotel has changed hands a number of times, and many times in the last 30 years. And because of that a lot has been lost. There was also sort of a fire sale in the 1970s when the hotel closed and they sold off everything in the hotel, all the way down to the plumbing fixtures. There’s very little in the hotel that’s original as far as furniture and documents and things. But the Graduate folks do have a collection of silver from the original 1920 silver service and cups and spoons and some cool things like that. They have their own history and documentation, but it’s actually stuff that’s been compiled by employees of the hotel over the years. The hotel itself doesn’t have its own archives, so to speak.
I do kind of remember it fell on hard times, but I didn’t know that they sold many of the interior items.
Essentially they had a multi-month yard sale where you could just walk into the hotel and anything you thought was for sale you could just point to it and say, “I’d like to buy that.”
View this post on Instagram
During your research did you discover anything that really surprised you or that was really notable?
Providence as a city has a real wild history. I think it’s probably understated compared to other cities in the country when we think of Prohibition cities like Chicago and New York. Rhode Island was actually the “wettest” state when it comes to prohibition, meaning that it defied Prohibition laws more than any other state. And the Biltmore was designed and built during Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol was still illegal in the United States. But it was designed with multiple bar rooms, very lengthy bars themselves — there was clearly no intention to have this be a “sober” house.
I think just knowing that it was built during Prohibition and very much with the intention of serving alcohol gives you a lens into what the owners were thinking at the time. Known bootleggers who ran vast networks of bootlegging operations throughout the Northeast lived in the Biltmore as permanent residents in the 1920s. There was a speakeasy across the street on Eddy Street that many staff from the hotel in the 1920s would utilize — either filling up their own canteens or those for guests of the hotel. There was a lot of anti-Prohibition activity happening at the hotel at the time.
I think everybody loves that part of history. As the only luxury hotel in the state at the time and with Providence being the epicenter of the manufacturing industry up until the 1930s, there were just so many important people that came through and stayed at the hotel. All of the political heads, major celebrities: Charles Lindbergh stayed at the hotel at least once, Babe Ruth stayed at the hotel, all the Kennedys, Jackie O., Nixon, Reagan, Bush. And then lots of local celebrities — [former governor] Bruce Sundlun’s parents lived at the hotel when he was a boy, so he kind of grew up in the hotel for the first portion of his life. He ended up being on the committee in the ’70s that saved the hotel; of course, he owned the hotel in part for a period of time, too. There are lots of local folks who were involved in saving the hotel in the ’70s from demolition, like Michael Metcalf from the Journal, Buddy Cianci, that whole group.
I think though, the most surprising and perhaps exciting stories to me were not about celebrities, but about folks that maybe have been lost to time and were really, really wild characters. When the hotel was built, hotels and apartment buildings were synonymous, so the hotel, while it always had short-term, overnight rental stays as part of its business model, also had permanent residents. And most hotels at the time did. Lots of people lived at the Waldorf in New York or at the Plaza in New York. And so some people who lived at the hotel during the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s — were some very interesting people.
There was a period of time when women who had become widows would sell off part of their estate or homes and move into the hotel. So for a time there were a number of wealthy widows living in the hotel and their social lives played out often in the social sections of the Providence Journal.
View this post on Instagram
Could you give me an example of someone of who wasn’t as well-known but made the Biltmore their home?
There’s a guy named Dutee Flint. You won’t find a lot about Dutee Flint when you Google him, but if you go in the archives of the Providence Journal you would find hundreds of articles about him. Dutee Flint and his wife were extremely wealthy socialites. They loved to entertain and had a very large estate in Cranston. Dutee made his fortune in the very early days of the automotive trade. He was very good friends with Henry Ford and had the exclusive right to Ford dealerships in the Northeast. He made an incredible amount of money selling cars.
He was very involved, like everybody at the time who was anybody, in the construction and opening of the Biltmore Hotel, to the point where on opening day of the hotel — June 6, 1922 — when all the prestigious “hotel men” from New York arrived at Providence Union Station by train, Dutee Flint was there with a long line of his Ford cars, and took them to his house for lunch before they went to the hotel. Which makes no sense, because the train station was directly next to the hotel. So he takes them all to Cranston, probably at like 10 miles per hour. But he was that kind of guy. He wanted to show off his estate and he had one of the largest pipe organs ever made for a home in his house. He always liked to show that off. So he was a real wildcard.
But then he had a pretty terrible and swift falling out with the Ford Motor Company and lost his fortune almost really overnight. He went from being a very high-society person to having very little very quickly. On the heels of that, his massive home — his huge estate in Cranston — mysteriously burned down in the middle of the night. And Dutee and his wife were able to collect substantial insurance money for their home. That night, with the fire slowing burning their home down, Dutee and his wife moved into the Biltmore Hotel. And he maintained a residence there until his death in obscurity in the 1940s. It was sort of a sad end to a really illustrious and interesting life.
He was also very involved in lots of different hobbies. He ran a radio station from the rooftop of the Biltmore Hotel for a long time. He broadcast all of the happenings of the hotel and everything that was going on from the roof of the hotel for a long time.
I should take a step back for a moment and say that the hotel was built in civic spirit. The chamber of commerce developed a committee, and the committee went door to door in Providence asking people to invest in the hotel. So over 1,800 people in the city invested in the building of the hotel. It was financed by members of the city as stockholders in the hotel. And that created all sorts of challenges as the hotel reorganized over the years because there were so many people who had a stake in this. But from day one this has been the city’s hotel.
So Dutee Flint being an investor in the hotel was not a surprise because everyone who was anyone in Providence helped pay for the construction of the Biltmore.
View this post on Instagram
That’s fascinating. It’s almost like crowdsourcing.
This idea of running a public campaign was very new. In fact, I read a book about the Plaza Hotel that said the Plaza was one of the first to ever do that. The Plaza used a similar model but it was not quite as robust as the community fundraising campaign that was done by the Biltmore.
I have to ask — you always hear tales of hauntings and spectral beings in the hotel. Did you discover any stories related to that during your research?
Getting back to the idea that people lived in the hotel for a long time and it was definitely during a time when people died in their homes, so realistically — and perhaps maybe it’s something they don’t want to put on the front page of the hotel’s website — but many, many, many people have died in the hotel. Because it was their home, and many people died at home.
There are lots of ghost stories that have floated around about the Biltmore that I couldn’t find very much evidence around. There certainly was not a Satanist who helped build the hotel — that’s one that gets floated around quite a bit. There was also no evidence of a wealthy banker committing suicide on the day of the stock market crash.
However, I do think that story — if one believes in ghosts — is the one that holds up the most. There have been a number of guests over the years that I saw in different articles that have reported seeing someone falling by their window outside of the hotel. To the point where guests have called the front desk to say, “Someone fell. Someone jumped. I just saw them fly by my window.” And front desk staff would go outside and check the sidewalk to see if anyone had actually fallen and no one was there.
This has happened a number of times and the story was always that a banker during the 1929 stock market crash committee suicide. I searched the records, the police reports, the newspaper records; I didn’t find anybody committing suicide at that time. But there was a suicide in the hotel in the 1940s and it would have been on the same floor [the eleventh] that people had reported seeing this body fall outside their window. I think if people are experiencing that, if one believes in ghosts, it is likely the body of a young woman who threw herself out of a window, not a banker in the 1920s.
She was in room 1130 on the eleventh floor. She checked in under an alias, she wrote a note pertaining to how she would like her three young children to be cared for, she took off her wedding ring, put it with the note, put it all together with her purse on the table and then threw herself out the window.
I omit her name from the book. I share the story but I do omit her name, respectfully recognizing that she had three children, so she has descendants, and I don’t want to make her name a ghost story.
There are just so many “hauntings,” so to speak — people hearing doors open and close — I think that if you believe in ghosts it would make no sense that it wouldn’t be haunted. There have been so many people — particularly those who have had some really serious falls-from-grace situations who have moved into the hotel to escape either their financial ruin or escape from social ruin. There’s been a number of people who’ve moved in whose wills have been contested. So if there are spirits, I can only imagine that they are not quite happy with how their lives played out at the end and perhaps being stuck at the Biltmore was their ultimate fate.
View this post on Instagram
The hotel is such an icon. You think of Providence and you think of the Biltmore. Why do you think it’s had such a lasting impression and has been such a big part of Providence’s landscape throughout the years?
I think for a long time it was the only one. When the hotel was built, it was the most modern hotel in the world. At that time, there was a lot of competition going on to have very modern hotels and over the years the hotel’s grandeur and the beauty of the inside of the hotel has been maintained really well. I think that’s part of it. It has an old-world charm. It is what luxury hotels used to be.
And at that time, they were unique. They were one of a kind. Even though there were multiple hotels in the Biltmore chain, every single one was perfectly unique and designed specifically for that space. I think because it can’t be replicated, because it’s one of a kind, and because it has such a storied past within the city — and perhaps a little bit because of how Providence is and how Rhode Island is — everyone has a story about the Biltmore. It was the place to get married, it was the place to have your sweet sixteen or your debutante ball. It was the place. It was the ultimate place to be seen and to see people.
It also was the center of the entertainment in the city for a very, very long time. All the way through the 1960s it was the place to see up-and-coming acts and even established acts. Count Basie played there, the Andrews Sisters, Rudy Vallee — just so many people.
Of course, it had one of the most scandalous cocktail lounges in the world, the Bacchante Room, which has its own history as well. But it was certainly a favorite of JFK and his Navy buddies when he was stationed in the Navy in Rhode Island. It was sort of the center of the social world for so long and I think that cultural memory has been cemented in Rhode Islanders’ minds forever.
The other side is that people who work at the Biltmore have worked there for decades. There were countless obituaries I came across that said so-and-so passed away, they worked at the Biltmore for twenty-five years; they worked at the Biltmore for forty-five years; they worked in the kitchen of the Biltmore for fifteen years. It was just the place to work at all levels of the hotel. I talked to people who are still alive today who worked in the kitchen at the Biltmore who have told me that when you got a job at the Biltmore, you had made it. And that was in the ’90s. That was still the feeling. It was the best kitchen. It was an old-school luxury hotel that did things in a way that wasn’t done at other hotels.
It has been both the hotel and the home of the city for so long. People have moved into the hotel when they either lost a home, when they sold a home, when they were in financial ruin. The Biltmore was the place to go. It’s part of the cultural identity of the state.
Every year and every decade that the hotel went through, it transformed itself. It grew with the city and changed with the city and met the city where the needs of the city were. I’m hopeful that this book is as much a story of the hotel as it is about the city of Providence.
Did You Know?
- Raymond Patriarca was a bellboy at the Providence Biltmore when he was ten years old.
- The von Trapp family stayed there after they fled Austria. They took up seven rooms.
- The Rolling Stones stayed there during their first tour of the United States.