What is now the Reading Room restaurant at the Bar Harbor Inn, shown in an early postcard view, began as an exclusive social club where liquor was served during prohibition. FILE PHOTO

‘Reading Room’ was once a front

BAR HARBOR —What is now called the Bar Harbor Inn was once an “oasis” of culture for the likes of the Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, and Morgans. According to the late Gladys O’Neil, local historian, the first social club to be organized on the island was started in 1874 and named the Oasis Club.

After brief stays in rented buildings, the club moved into its own quarters in 1887, newly incorporated as the Mount Desert Reading Room, with the avowed purpose of promoting “literary and social culture.”

The handsome new cedar shingled structure, designed by architect William Randolph Emerson, became the center of social activities during the summers before World War I.

In 1910, President William Howard Taft was entertained there during his three-day stay in Bar Harbor. For the next 35 years, the club flourished, and members saw their ranks swell by visiting yachtsmen whose gleaming boats lay moored in Frenchman Bay, as well as officers of the U. S. Navy whose ships would make annual visits.

Ladies, though allowed admittance by invitation on special occasions, did not enjoy equal status with men at the club until 1921. It was then that a restaurant was opened to the public, and the club, faced with ever-increasing maintenance costs, sought to attract more investors.

However, by 1922, it was no longer feasible for the club to carry the financial burden, and it was sold to the Maine Central Railroad. Over the next 25 years, the building had a number of proprietors and served a variety of tenants. In 1933, a group of hotel owners organized the Shore Club to allow guests at local hotels the use of club facilities.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy leased the building and utilized it as an observation headquarters. When the Great Forest Fire of 1947 raged throughout Bar Harbor, the American Red Cross used the building to give assistance to many who were burned out.

After the fire, Bar Harbor was left without a single hotel to attract visitors back to the area.

A group of townspeople joined in 1950 to develop the Hotel Bar Harbor with an initial 40-room wing, followed in 1960 by a 20-room motel along the shore path. The property was purchased in 1987 by David J. Witham, who changed the name to the Bar Harbor Inn. By 1999 he had completely redeveloped the property. The Inn now has 153 guest rooms with modern amenities and is considered by many to be one of Maine’s finest oceanfront properties.