January 24, 2013

Preservation Vacation: Rock Rest, A Home Away From Home

  • By: Lauren Walser

As a teenager, Valerie Cunningham spent two summers helping family friends Clayton and Hazel Sinclair run their small inn in Kittery, Maine.

Rock Rest, as the guesthouse was called, provided accommodations and home-cooked meals during the summer months to African American travelers at a time when de facto segregation in the North made it difficult for them to access hotels, restaurants, and many other public places.

For scores of vacationers, it was a safe and relaxing haven near the water. For Cunningham, it was an inspiration.

A postcard of Rock Rest in 1959.

photo by: Valerie Cunningham

A postcard of Rock Rest in its heyday in 1959, given to guests as a souvenir.

“For a young person, such as myself, the only time I had contact with black professionals was when my parents sent me to visit my relatives in Philadelphia, or Boston, or someplace like that. And then there was Rock Rest,” says Cunningham, founder and past president of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. “I got to hear their stories about what was going on in their communities, and what their challenges were, as black people. Just hearing them talk [...] was really important, and, I believe, significant as I was growing up.”

The Sinclairs first opened their home to travelers in the 1940s, giving up their own beds to visitors who came from all over the country. Guests visited the nearby beaches, played croquet in Clayton's sprawling gardens, and enjoyed Hazel's cooking in the fine dining room (many of the ingredients she used came directly from the couple's garden).

As Rock Rest’s popularity grew, the couple expanded their house, creating new bedrooms to meet demand. But in 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of segregation, Rock Rest was no longer the only option available to African American travelers. The number of visitors to Rock Rest tapered off, and finally in the early 1970s, the couple closed the guesthouse to the public.

The Sinclairs continued living in the house, opening their doors to the occasional visitor—many of them former guests of the inn. Clayton died in 1978 and Hazel in 1995. Following Hazel’s death, the house was rented out for nearly a decade, falling into a state of disrepair, until the Sinclairs' son decided to sell the property.

Clayton and Hazel Sinclair.

photo by: Valerie Cunningham

Clayton and Hazel Sinclair.

Guests staying at Rock Rest. Date Unknown.

photo by: Valerie Cunningham

Guests staying at Rock Rest. Date unknown.

“By that time, I had become aware of the importance of preservation and very much aware of the black history of the area,” Cunningham said. “And I was concerned that if the house was sold, it would be bulldozed and the stories would be lost.”

So Cunningham reached out to numerous local preservation groups and interested individuals who worked together to find a preservation-minded buyer.

“We knew that because of the condition of the house, and because it’s a tiny little house and people like big houses now, it would have been torn down immediately, and that would be the end of it,” she says.

Cunningham and her colleagues hosted several events on the grounds to showcase the place and share its story. Eventually, they found a buyer who was committed to keeping the house intact and as close to its original condition as possible.

Today, Cunningham says, the new owner continues her restoration efforts and hopes to open the house, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to the public for special occasions. But until that time, Cunningham is just thrilled to have Rock Rest remain in the Kittery community.

She says, “There’s value in having a place for people to actually go and see this little house and learn the story of a black couple who were able to succeed in their business venture.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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