Sarah L. Purnell, 90, presided over hotel on Ocean City boardwalk

January 01, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Sarah Lynch Purnell, who presided over Ocean City's Atlantic Hotel and a more elegant era in the Eastern Shore resort town, died Thursday of heart failure at her home in West Ocean City. She was 90.

An Ocean City native, Mrs. Purnell was among a small band of women who helped transform the area from a small fishing village into a destination for more than 8 million tourists a year, Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. said last night.

In honor of Mrs. Purnell - whose hospitality extended to future Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon - the mayor ordered flags lowered to half-staff in Ocean City.

"This was a fishing village," Mr. Mathias said. "As it began to grow, the men did the fishing and the women managed the business of hospitality, the rooming houses and all."

The daughter of a fisherman who founded Ocean City's first bank in 1916, Sarah Lynch attended Hollins College in Roanoke, Va.

"There were 850 people here when I was growing up," she told the local Daily Times in a September 1999 interview. "You knew everybody. You knew who fished, who didn't ... who went to church, who didn't and for what reasons."

In 1935, she married William Henry Purnell, who had purchased the 400-room Atlantic at the boardwalk and Wicomico Street with his father in the early 1920s and rebuilt it with 200 rooms after it burned to the ground in 1925.

Mrs. Purnell worked for more than 60 years at the landmark hotel, which was the site of many political and business gatherings in the days before Ocean City had a convention center.

For decades, she oversaw the kitchen and dining room, personally preparing the meal of Virginia ham, roast turkey and Maryland crab meat au gratin for then-Senator Kennedy, who was attending a convention of Maryland Democratic women in 1958.

"Everybody knew in the hotel that he was going to be running for president. It was quite a `do' and all that stuff," said her son John M. Purnell of Washington.

Mrs. Purnell toiled by day in the hotel kitchen, helping her pastry chef and other staff churn out as many as 1,500 meals a day. At night, she traded her apron for something swanky, greeting guests in the dining room with panache that earned her the nickname "Queenie."

"The women really were, I'm going to call them the kingpins of the resort industry, and she was one of those fine ladies," said former Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell. "They were hard workers and believed [that when you] came to a hotel, you dressed for your meals and you sat on the front porch and rocked in the rocking chairs."

In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, the Atlantic held grand season-opening parties in the hotel ballroom with entertainers such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Decades later, John Purnell recalls a chiffon evening gown his mother wore one night.

"I remember a fairly daring fleshy-colored thing," John Purnell said. "Every year it was a different gown."

In those days in Ocean City, it was de rigueur to wear a jacket to dinner - and illegal for men to go bare-chested on the boardwalk.

Widowed in 1984, Mrs. Purnell was overseeing the hotel payroll when she retired in 1995. By then, much of the glamour had left Ocean City. The opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952 made the resort easier to reach - and less exclusive.

The boardwalk had grown from a few blocks to nine miles of high-rise condos, amusement parks and suburban-style supermarkets. The Atlantic, which closed its kitchen and dining room in the 1960s, no longer ranked among the poshest spots in town. The hotel is still operated by the Purnell family.

Funeral services were held yesterday at St. Paul's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

Mrs. Purnell is survived by two other sons, William H. Purnell Jr., who lives at the Atlantic, and Charles D. Purnell of West Ocean City.

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