If hotels were to be compared to mountains, the vast and glorious Mount Washington Hotel would qualify as an entire range. The snowy-white faces of this 1902 edifice - towering at five stories, capped with red Spanish Renaissance roofs - present a stunning spectacle to travelers in the Ammonoosuc Valley at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
In 1900 an army of Italian artisans and craftsmen assaulted a knoll by a bubbling mountain river in a vast tract of New England forest. In two seasons, they constructed of steel, wood, and stucco a ''modern'' wonder that was acclaimed in a contemporary newspaper, with turn-of-the-century excitement, the ''first twentieth-century hotel of the White Mountains.''
In those days, the White Mountains hosted high-society families - with entourages of busy maids, butlers, and tutors - for summers of the most fashionable vacationing in America. New Hampshire boasted over 100 ''grand hotels,'' accessible from cities to the south first by rail and later by the initially mistrusted motorcar.
So many men commuted north on weekends during the peak season to join their families that express trains ran straight from New York's Grand Central Station to the hotel areas.
Of these hospitable giants, only the Mount Washington and two other hotels, the Balsams at Dixville Notch and the Mountain View House at Whitefield, are still in operation. The Mount Washington, set on a 2,600-acre recreation area is open this year between May 20 and October 24.
One reason for the hotel's preservation is its historic importance; it is now listed in the National Register of Historic Sites. In the final days of World War II - when Allied troops were fighting on the Normandy beachhead - the United States government chose the Mount Washington Hotel as the site of what has since been called the ''Bretton Woods Conference.'' Representives of 44 nations met in its spacious corridors and 235 guest rooms to establish a gold standard and set up the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The agreement, signed by 35 nations in the hotel's lavish Gold Room, stabilized currency and exchange rates for a generation.
The rooms of the participants are marked in small brass plaques; the visitor can amuse himself by wondering what John Maynard Keynes and US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., might have said to each other on their way down to Mount Washington's sumptuous breakfast table.
From the hotel's wide, airy ''wrap-around'' verandas, facing the stately Presidential Range to the east, Crawford Notch to the south, and the gentle Rosebud Mountains to the west, hotel guests have watched mountain-orchestrated changes in the scenery for 80 years, through all hours of the day and every month of the vacation season. Mt. Washington, often locked in two competitive storm fronts, can greet the day enshrouded in clouds. In other moods, it directs the flouncing of puffy clouds through light air - and their mimic shadows on the forested ground below.
The sounds of the pebbly Ammonoosuc River, which makes a snake curve through hotel property, past the swimming pool, 11 clay tennis courts, and 18-hole golf course, are most torrential in the springtime. Summer paints the landscape - traversed by running, riding, and hiking trails - with a palette of greens, relying on beeches, sugar maples, balsam firs, and spruces for its shades and variations. Bursting into flames of color, the northern hardwoods on these weatherworn mountains, sometimes snow-capped by October, make fall this stalwart hotel's climactic season.
Though its setting is stupendous and the hotel equal to it - its glorious walls and octagonal towers visible from high up on Mt. Washington's antique, puffy, coal-powered cog railway - the historical edifice is far from all stucco and facade. Indoors, guests may station themselves on crushed-velvet seats, positioned to create cozy spaces within an over 200-foot-long lobby, and watch a bustle of preparations by a cordial staff of over 300, operating under Jack Sylvester, hotel president and managing partner.
Cooks crowned with white cylindrical hats may be seen striding confidently down the lobby's wainscoted length, undaunted by double rows of ornate white pillars, crystal chandeliers, and brass sconces. Sprigs of parsley might be the only visible parts of mysterious creations balanced high on the cooks' shoulders , perhaps intended for a special midnight banquet to be held in the Victorian ballroom later in the evening. A singer in tails might trail a trumpeter in a tux and white bow tie, both on their way to join other musicians rehearsing in the recently renovated peach-and-white dining room.
In the early days, when the hotel competed with other grand local establishments, the Mount Washington boasted a boys choir that toured the neighboring hotels. Today, the Mount Washington features the Brettonians, a company of talented music students assembled in this pastoral setting by music director Kathy Fogarty, who also arranges superb seasonal opera evenings, open-air symphony concerts, and performances by her own ''Trio Internationale.''
At breakfast, the extra cream requested for an overflowing bowl of fresh fruit may be served by a bass or baritone. Visitors arriving too late for the evening meal and entertainment may be unaware that their courteous waiters and waitresses are musicians playing two parts for the summer. No less competent as servers than as singers, the Brettonians, about 30 in number, dazzle dinner guests with a few sample songs as ''teasers'' to prepare them for evening cabarets and revues.
Executive chef and culinary maestro Maurice Zeck presides at the Mount Washington over six interconnected kitchen areas and a well-structured staff of 85.
Chef Zeck sits down every Saturday morning and, with a flourish of pen almost equaling his culinary flair, composes the hotel menus for the week. 40 appetizers, 40 or 50 soups, 15 salads, 60 entrees, and 120 desserts later, Maurice looks up. Off go the orders to Maine and Boston, for instance for fresh fish for that week - $7,800 worth of swordfish, salmon, and lobsters (nothing is frozen at the Mount Washington).
Maurice and his accomplished crew of pastry chefs - during creation of 600 desserts for a full house - recently sculpted a 650-pound white cake model of the hotel, complete with pillars, verandas, and swimming pool, trimmed with marzipan, royal icing, and pastillage, for the Mount Washington's 80th anniversary celebration.
The architecture at the Mount Washington Hotel - unique in its own era for a Y-shaped design that provides panoramic mountain vistas from rooms on all sides - teaches a number of interesting history lessons. For the socialites from Philadelphia, New York, and Boston - many of whom came with steamer trunks in the early days to one hotel for the entire season - it would simply not do to be seated in the corner of a conventional square dining room out of the social limelight.
New York architect Charles Alling Gifford took this into account in designing for builder Joseph Stickney's new hotel an exquisite octagon-shaped dining room, with expansive windows framing the entire Presidential Range to the east, Mt. Washington in central position. The glorious sweep of verandas around three-quarters of the hotel allowed early hotel guests to entertain each other by moonlight on formal promenades in ruffles and brocades on cool New Hampshire evenings.
In the years since these fashionable figures graced the long lobbies of the hotel and the entire mountainous area - period photos show women in bustle skirts undertaking the ascent of Mt. Washington and its Presidential cohorts - the castle-like, flag-bearing establishment has undergone some 20th-century traumas: Wars, depression, changing vacation patterns.
Happily, recent years have brought an enlightened ownership group, the Bretton Woods Associates. While a few cracks here and there in the stucco will remind visitors of the hotel's age, the group is gradually renovating the hotel, both inside and out. Headed by general partners Jack Sylvester and Robert Lieb, the group also owns the highly successful Bretton Woods ski area, The Lodge at Bretton Woods, and several restaurants in the 2,600-acre development area.
For reservations at the Mount Washington call 800-278-0330 from the northeast , 603-278-1000 from New Hampshire or elsewhere - or write to the Reservations Manager, Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, N.H. 03575. Daily rates per person, including dinner and breakfast, range from $80 to $111. Special weekend and 4- to 8-day packages are also available at slightly lower rates. Prices include unlimited tennis, indoor and outdoor pools, and sauna. Free golf is included with stays of seven or more days. For others, greens fees are $9 a day ($24 for 3 days, $30 for 5 days). Horseback riding is $12 an hour.