A Fortune 500 fortune funds a Newport hotel

March 14, 2014, 4:53 PM UTC
Courtesy of Forty 1 North

Sooner or later the Polar Vortex will be behind us, and it will be time to think about opening the summer house or scheduling beach weekends. A little-known property in Newport, R.I., likely to take a place on some calendars this year is as notable for its marina—one of the most state of the art on the eastern seaboard—as it is for its unique Fortune 500 pedigree.

Newport may not make the business-press headlines as much as Nantucket these days, but the resort town has long served as a playground to the elite. The boutique hotel, called Forty 1 North (it takes its name from its latitude), has a stylish, eco-vibe, but its high-tech marina facilities are what make it stand out in the crowded Newport hotel scene. (It’s also one of the few hotels on the East Coast where you can tie up a 250-foot super-yacht.) What’s less known about the property is that it’s a pet project of Dorrance “Dodo” Hill Hamilton, the Philadelphia-area philanthropist and heiress to the storied Campbell Soup (CPB) fortune.

The granddaughter of Dr. John T. Dorrance—the chemist who invented the formula for condensed soup back in 1897, served as president of the company from 1914 until his death in 1930, and in the process created one of America’s great family fortunes. (It was No. 338 on the 2013 Fortune 500.) Dodo, or “Mrs. Hamilton,” as she is widely referred to, had a privileged childhood. She grew up at 740 Park Ave., the storied luxury building that has housed everyone from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Jacqueline Onassis to Saul Steinberg, Ron Perelman, Stephen Schwarzman, and more. But Hamilton spent virtually every summer of her life in Newport, at Bois Doré (“Golden Woods”), the family’s 36-room, French-formal mansion, set among the grand estates that comprise a singular enclave of American wealth and privilege.

Hamilton, now 85, has been known for most of her adult life as a generous if under-the-radar philanthropist with unique areas of interest: Notable gifts over the years have included $25 million to Thomas Jefferson Hospital and $5 million each to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Kimmel Center, all institutions in her adopted city of Philadelphia.

An avid gardener and nature lover, Hamilton’s flowers have won prizes in blind competitions at the esteemed Philadelphia Flower Show. And in 2002, Hamilton founded the SVF Foundation in Newport, a non-profit in collaboration with Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine that is dedicated to preserving heritage breeds of livestock through an advanced form of cryopreservation. In the process, she swooped in and preserved 45 idyllic acres of prime Newport real estate that had been slated for condo development, much to the locals’ relief.

Hamilton then decided that she wanted to give back to Newport in another way. For all the wealth in the area, particularly near the the oceanfront estates, downtown Newport—a quaint, historic, and comparably modest part of town that’s home to many of Newport’s yearlong residents—was ready for an economic revitalization when Hamilton began toying with the idea of opening a boutique hotel there. When a prime waterfront spot overlooking Newport Harbor on lower Thames Street became available in 2006, she saw an opportunity for her hotel. When ground was broken in 2009, it was the first all-new construction in Newport’s downtown in 20 years.

“Mrs. Hamilton had long wanted to do something to help the local community and acquired the property with the idea that it would be an economic driver for downtown Newport,” says George Moore, a Philadelphia lawyer and one of Hamilton’s partners in the hotel. (He became a friend and advisor after serving as one of her attorneys.) Forty 1 North now employs 75-150 people, depending on the season.

After a ground-up, LEED-certified construction and a complete overhaul of the existing marina—led by Peter Borden, a noted area yachtsman and yacht restorer and the hotel’s other co-owner—the hotel opened its sustainably-sourced doors. (While the hotel officially opened in 2010, it initially stayed relatively under the radar—but this winter began selling out consistently on weekends.)

The marina itself is as cutting-edge as they come. Equipped with 400-amp service—enough juice to power a small apartment building—it can offer safe harbor and plenty of electricity to yachts up to 250 feet long. There are 7,000 pounds of electric cable humming within the hotel’s docks to power the sophisticated systems of today’s super-yachts. Concierge, laundry, and wash-down service, along with on-board dining, are also available. Given the relative rarity of these kinds of yachting facilities on the eastern seaboard, there’s often a waiting list in high season. (Mrs. Hamilton keeps her own boat in the hotel’s marina—a sporty yet relatively modest, 37-foot Hinkley Picnic Boat, which is inspired by lobster boats. She’s a frequent visitor for lunch, and occasionally dinner, at the hotel during high season.)

Inside Forty 1 North
Inside Forty 1 NorthCourtesy of Forty 1 North
Courtesy of Forty 1 North

The hotel, designed by Philadelphia’s DAS Architects and comprised of 24 rooms and suites along with two lofts and two cottages, combines understated luxury with a progressive environmental sensibility. A dramatic center staircase and mosaic-tiled oval bar are striking focal points on the sunny main level; upstairs, the contemporary but cozy rooms, all equipped with gas fireplaces, are decorated in a cool color palette of grays and blues. Newspapers are delivered daily to guests’ iPads.

The property’s fine-dining restaurant, The Grill, features steakhouse favorites with a twist, like wagyu hanger steak and Alaskan king crab, a riff on the traditional surf & turf. A more casual restaurant, Christie’s, serves American comfort food, like bacon-wrapped chili-cheese dogs and pretzel-crusted crab cakes.

Newport has become an increasingly year-round destination in recent years, thanks in part to an ongoing restaurant renaissance and the city’s relative proximity to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia; and the hotel’s design was “winterized” from the get-go, in anticipation of luring vacationers both on-season and off. Those travelers and others seeking stylish, enviro-friendly creature comforts along with a little-known industrialist lineage may add Forty 1 North to their regular rotation. Just note that there’s one thing you won’t find on the menu anywhere at the hotel: Campbell’s Soup.