The Seth Bird House, a three-story saltbox structure of approximately 3,000 square feet, is not an unusual sort of dwelling for residents of the Litchfield Hills area of Connecticut. In a region that’s been wealthy since colonial times, the house stands out neither for the year of its construction (1775) nor for the social status of its current owner (the scion of one of the owners of Merrill Lynch). Indeed, any casual visitor happening down its driveway might well overlook it entirely, given the 18 startlingly oddball cottages that have sprung up on the surrounding 113-acre estate.
One of the structures is made of giant boulders; another is a tree house balanced 35 feet off the ground. There’s a house built around a 56-foot-long decommissioned Coast Guard helicopter and another with a gigantic oak tree in the living room. All are part of what will soon be a remarkable—or at least, remarkably quirky—hotel called Winvian, set to open early next year. For $1,450 a night, Winvian will offer an aggressively art- and design-heavy overnight experience in a bucolic setting. Each cottage is being created by a different architect or designer, each of whom has been encouraged to think high-concept, whimsical, and over-the-top. The aesthetic is countrified and crafty rather than slick and polished, and it’s appealingly eager to please. Of course, there’s a fine line between playful and gimmicky, between engaging and just too much. "If we are successful, if we can refine our vision, Winvian will be an extraordinary, unusual hotel," says co-general manager Luciana Nijdam. But, she adds, "It won’t be for everyone."
Winvian’s voyage from respectable colonial-era farm to 21st-century concept hotel dates back to 1993, when the Pitcher Inn burned to the ground in the village of Warren, Vermont. The loss was felt particularly keenly by local architect David Sellers. A former professor at the Yale School of Architecture, Sellers was a leading light in the Design-Build movement, founded in the 1960’s and devoted to craft and workmanship. Fearing that the burned-out cellar that remained would be replaced by a chain convenience store, Sellers enlisted Win Smith Jr., an executive at Merrill Lynch who had been vacationing in the valley for years, in a scheme to rebuild the hotel. Smith bought the land and Sellers drew up a master plan. What he had in mind was something a bit more creative than the standard high-end lodge. "You know the Beatles movie, the Yellow Submarine?" he asks. "There’s one scene where you’re walking down this hallway, and you open a door, and there’s a train coming. You close that door, open the next door, and you’re under water. Every time you open a door, something else amazing is behind it. I said, ’What if we did that?’"
Under his guidance, a team of local architects and designers were each given the task of designing one room as creatively as possible around different Vermont themes, such as mountaineering, duck hunting, fly-fishing—and, naturally, the state’s two native-born U.S. presidents, Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur. The reborn Pitcher Inn opened in 1997. In an age of hype, it was the remarkable converse: a low-key, discreet, almost hidden place that unveiled astonishment after astonishment. Behind a handsomely traditional Greek-Revival façade, guests found themselves in rooms that were like small worlds fabricated from an artist’s imagination. In the Mountain Room, a ramshackle cabin of planks and tin roofing had been constructed in the middle of an otherwise luxurious bedroom suite, complete with trompe l’oeil paintings of the Green Mountains outside its "windows." In the Mallard Room, the wainscoting was made of scrollwork silhouettes of marsh reeds, so that guests feel as if they’re duck hunters—or perhaps even ducks.