The white roses and alchemilla in the gardens have yet to reach maturity at Glenmere, the new country boutique hotel ensconced in an Italianate villa a 1 1/2-hour drive north of New York City. The spa may not be open, but already the dining room, with its hand-painted eglomise silver-leaf panels, often has more than 50 people on a waiting list on Saturday nights. Helicopters ferrying visitors from Manhattan have touched down on the lawn, and the butler in morning coat is busy at the front door, greeting guests by name. Welcome to the fantasy of proprietors Alan Stenberg and Daniel DeSimone.
Converting a mansion in a rural part of the Lower Hudson Valley into a 19-room luxury hotel might seem an unlikely proposition—especially if the principals have no previous experience as hoteliers and no one’s ever heard of the location. But since the property opened early this year, those in the know have been making the pilgrimage to the remote town of Chester to check out Glenmere.
Built in 1911 for real estate maven Robert Goelet on a hill overlooking Glenmere Lake, the pink Tuscan-style mansion was never intended to blend in with its 3,000 wooded acres but rather to make a grand statement. Designed by Carrère and Hastings, architects of nearby Tuxedo Park’s most imposing houses and the New York Public Library, Glenmere was planned around a columned interior courtyard bordered on one side by a magnificent marble staircase. It was then embellished with balconies, terraces, porticos, medieval stone plaques, and ornamental metalwork by Samuel Yellin, not to mention murals by American illustrator and painter J. Alden Twachtman.
Beatrix Farrand, Edith Wharton’s niece and the most prominent landscape architect of her day, was asked to design the gardens. Notwithstanding her first impression of the site—she said it would take 10 years for the place to look like anything but “a thimble on a bald head”—Farrand orchestrated a series of terraces leading to a walled garden with pools, statuary, and sculptural reliefs. She is reputed to have insisted, against Goelet’s wishes, on the sinuous drive through the parkland to the house.
Over time, the estate passed through a number of hands, and the land was sold off bit by bit. There were 100 acres left in 2005 when DeSimone, a Tuxedo Park resident and orthopedic surgeon with a fascination for old houses, happened to see a “big pink mess up on a hill” while out for a drive. Intrigued, he contacted a local real estate agent and learned the place was for sale. “It was like going into Miss Havisham’s house,” he says about his first peek inside. A family was living in a handful of the 35 rooms, paint was peeling, and there were leaks everywhere. But DeSimone, who had just taken a sabbatical to train at the French Culinary Institute, decided on the spot that Glenmere would make a marvelous hotel. When he was finally able to get his partner, Stenberg, a retired public relations executive, to take a look, he, too, was bewitched.
With the backing of Peter Klein, a German industrialist, and his American wife, Alison, a childhood friend of Stenberg’s, work got under way. More than $30 million later, the terra-cotta floor tiles were polished, two of the Twachtman murals restored, the staircases repointed, the ironwork repaired, the mantels and most plaster moldings saved. The house was limewashed pink and its shutters refurbished and painted—not the original dark green but a vibrant aqua that turned out to be the exact hue used at Rome’s Hotel de Russie.
Other details were deliberately borrowed from hotels the partners have admired over the years, including Wheatleigh, the Italian-style country-house hotel in the Berkshires. “We’ve shamelessly copied everything we’ve ever enjoyed at other hotels we’ve visited,” says Stenberg, who is the front man at Glenmere. DeSimone remains in the background, fussing over the wine list (first-rate) and concocting recipes with chef Michael Foss, a Californian who previously worked for Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson (DeSimone’s own four-layered lemon-meringue cake is popular). Stenberg and DeSimone have a disarming way of making both the renovation and the running of the hotel seem simple, even though at one point there was a prolonged stop-work order from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation because there was a chance that the northernmost habitat of the northern cricket frog was being disrupted (it turned out the creature didn’t live at Glenmere).