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Cottage Living in Connecticut

Amy Eckert Beaver Lodge, designed by John Carino

Photo: Amy Eckert

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.

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