Cottage Living in Connecticut
Published: April 2009
By Jeff Wise
At the sprawling, colonial Winvian estate in northeastern Connecticut, a curious collection of small, highly idiosyncratic cottages is under construction, and a new hotel prepares to debut.
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.
"When guests walk into the Pitcher Inn, they go, ’Wow!’" Smith says. "We want them to keep going ’Wow!’ the whole time they stay there and then when they come back again, to keep noticing different features, whether it’s the wainscoting, or the chandelier, or a piece of art."
It’s precisely this aesthetic Smith hopes to put to work at Winvian. In 1947, shortly before Smith was born, his parents had purchased Seth Bird’s farm outside Litchfield and given it their own first names, Winthrop and Vivian. Over the years cattle, sheep, and horses were raised on the farm, but by the time Vivian died, in 1997, the property had stood empty for many years. Smith didn’t want to sell it but had no practical use for it, either. Then his daughter Heather, who had been running the Pitcher Inn, proposed that they turn it into another inn—this time on an even grander scale.
Sellers convened a gathering of architects at his home in Vermont and developed a master plan that called for 15 architects and designers to build 18 freestanding cottages as well as expand the Seth Bird House to create common areas, dining rooms, and another guest suite. With all-inclusive rates starting at $1,450 a night, it will promise to add a whole new dimension to the concept of luxe. "In Litchfield, once again, we want to build something that provides a unique experience," says Smith. "A hotel room is a hotel room. If you’re looking for something new, something that has a little bit of adventure, you want to stay somewhere that is a story unto itself."
Creating a magical experience is rarely itself a magical experience. Inside a cottage called the Beaver Lodge, a young designer named John Carino watches anxiously as a team of four workmen carefully maneuvers a five-foot-long piece of curved glass into position atop a matching arc of river stones. They’re part of the shower stall, one of the last few remaining components to be installed in the cottage; its completion will mark a major milestone. But the glass doesn’t quite fit over the base, and after struggling for more than an hour, during which time they partially demolish the base, the workers give up and depart.
Such tribulations have not been rare at Winvian. With only a few months left before the grand opening, the project is mired in all the difficulties that can arise as a complicated project enters the home stretch. Budgets are getting broken; plans are being revised. It’s a nerve-racking state of affairs.
Nor have the neighbors always been especially welcoming about the prospect of a new commercial enterprise amid their serene estates. When the Smiths first applied for a zoning change from the town, two neighbors bitterly opposed them, as did the board of the White Memorial Foundation, a 4,000-acre preserve that abuts Winvian. But gradually the community has come to embrace the new inn. "There was a feeling that it was going to be too much for the area, but I’ve toured the place three or four times, and our feeling is, they’re doing great. It’s a top-notch development," says the foundation’s executive director, Keith Cudworth. "The clientele is not exactly going to be rowdy."
Carino’s Beaver Lodge is a rustic wooden cabin that seems to have emerged from the dreams of both beavers and beaver trappers. The exterior planks are live-edged, milled with the bark still on; the interior supporting beams consist of whole tree trunks. Above the king-size bed is a beaver lodge assembled from actual lodges found on the site that Carino meticulously took apart, pressure-washed, and put back together. The stones that make up the fireplace he handpicked from a streambed in Vermont and trucked down himself. "Twenty trips," he says. "It was very labor-intensive."
It’s entirely evident, even without seeing Carino in the lodge obsessing over it in person, that the building is the result of a passion so intense it borders on OCD. Indeed, obsessiveness is a hallmark of the whole Winvian project. Everything appears to have been done in the most difficult way possible. When I first arrived at the property that morning in January, a group of workers was taking crowbars to a just-finished stone wall attached to the main building. "It wasn’t right," explained Nijdam.
Because Carino wanted the cabin to feel as if it were 100 years old, he scrounged up a variety of old planking from architectural salvage. The tongues and grooves didn’t match, and two carpenters chose to quit rather than deal with the difficulty of fitting them together. Carino also met with skepticism from his crew when they found him deliberately trying to rust the brand-new cast-iron staircase.
"A lot of the workers think I’m insane," he says. But this hands-on, figure-it-out-as-you-go approach is the holistic essence of Design-Build, which treats the act of construction as part of the creative process.
It’s not always so good for meeting deadlines, though.
The mood is more serene next door, where architect John Connell is huddled with two assistants inside a 900-square-foot folly called the Treehouse, bolted three stories up in the air between two maple trees. Connell’s team is making sketches on a scrap of paper on a sawdust-covered worktable, trying to figure out how they want to construct a built-in desk out of kirei, an earth-friendly composite sheet material made of pressed sorghum stalks.
Connell, a handsome gray-haired man with the springlike gait of a motivational speaker, leads me to the entryway. Just inside the front door, one wall is a pieced-together puzzle of scrap wood that’s been meticulously prepared and fitted in a simulacrum of what a bunch of enthusiastic but unskilled kids might have created. "The idea is to lavish a huge amount of craft on crappy materials," Connell explains. "Kids have endless energy and imagination, and no money—that’s the driving concept."
The facing wall, by contrast, consists of a polished and slickly angular matrix of dimensional lumber. "Our guiding spirit is to imagine Greene & Greene [the legendary architectural team of the Arts and Crafts movement] when they were twelve years old. This side of the entrance is where they grow up and become architects."
The end effect is anything but heavy-handed. This cottage, along with the others at Winvian, feels like an invitation to play. Is there a danger, I ask Connell, that the little themed houses could slip over the line from ebullient to kitschy, like something in a theme park?
Connell nods. "This is the crux of the matter: Is it architecture or stage dressing?" he says. "You go to Disney’s Swiss Family Treehouse, and it’s made of concrete. It’s disappointing." He slaps his hand against a timber. "This is a real tree house."
As we walk through the open space that links the Treehouse’s bedroom and sitting room, he elaborates. "Good architecture is expressive—a building that distinguishes itself. Good architecture makes people stop and say, ’That’s different.’ A lot of architecture accomplishes that by being sleek and superior—inscrutable. A lot of architects wouldn’t dare risk being seen as silly."
After my visit to Winvian last winter, I had marked my calendar with the June opening date. Based on my previous experience at the Pitcher Inn, and having watched Carino, Connell, and other architects pore over the details of their creations, I expect that staying at Winvian will be a creative adventure in its own right. Unfortunately, the process of getting everything seamlessly right pushed its opening back. The grand opening is now slated for late February or early March 2007, with a soft opening scheduled for sometime before that.
Will the Smiths’ gamble pay off?Will the sort of top-end travelers who frequent $2,000-per-night inns take to the idea of immersing themselves in an interactive artistic experience—or will Winvian go down as a brave creative gambit gone too far?We’ll just have to wait to find out. But one thing’s clear already: to even pose the question requires a courage that, if more widespread, would lead to a whole new way of thinking about hotels.
Winvian, 155 Alain White Rd., Morris, Conn.; 860/567-9600; www.winvian.com; doubles from $1,450, all-inclusive.
Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.