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Vermont inn offers history, a little extra aura

Email|Print| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / March 19, 2006

WILMINGTON, Vt. -- Room 9 at the White House of Wilmington is a cozy space, outfitted with fireplace, rocking chair, and a view of rolling hills. But it also comes with a story -- a tall tale for the skeptic, a heart-thumper for the lover of intrigue.

The room, lore has it, was once the domain of Mrs. Brown. That is, Claire Brown, wife of Martin Brown, the lumber baron and Vermont native who built the hilltop mansion in 1915. He did so at the insistence of his wife, who had declared their previous home unfit for visitors after an overnight stay there by Calvin Coolidge, the future president.

The Browns are long departed, but guests at the inn have reported appearances by the former lady of the house. She is said to be fond of appearing in her bedroom of old and telling visitors from a perch in the rocking chair, ''This is Mrs. Brown's room. There is room for only one Mrs. Brown. And I am Mrs. Brown."

We had no such sightings.

Room 9 the night of our stay, shortly before Christmas, was a peaceful, apparition-free place. It offered a welcome respite after a day spent downhill skiing at nearby Mount Snow and ambling through Wilmington, a friendly town of about 2,200 residents, banked along the Deerfield River. The village comprises a few square blocks with an ample supply of cafes, craft shops, and art galleries. We enjoyed an apres-ski beer at the Maple Leaf Malt and Brewing Company on Main Street.

Later, back at the White House, wandering the hallways and sitting rooms, it was not difficult to picture it as a retreat for the Browns. The 25-room inn is classically appointed, trimmed with dark wood, dotted with photographs of the Brown clan, and fronted with white clapboard and a double terrace. Its decor is unreconstructed, including antique bathroom fixtures, grandfather clocks, leather wingback chairs, and floral wallpaper imported by the Browns from France. A tea service sits in the hallway outside the main cluster of guest rooms.

But the house also has unconventional, quirky turns of style that the Browns fancied, as we learned from the couple's granddaughters -- Karen Dufaut of New Hampshire and Gretchen Anderson of Washington state, who were visiting their childhood summer home the weekend of our stay.

A delightful surprise is the secret staircase leading from the upstairs hallway to the downstairs sitting room, another favorite haunt of Mrs. Brown. There, straight out of a mystery novel, the staircase entrance is secreted behind a built-in bookshelf.

Adam Grinold, the assistant innkeeper, said Martin Brown got the inspiration for the secret staircase after visiting the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass., which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous story.

The Brown family sold the home in the 1960s, and for a time, it housed a nightclub in the basement. In 1978, Robert Grinold, Adam Grinold's father and the current owner, purchased the building. He restored its fixtures and constructed additional space and amenities.

The basement, which once housed a bowling alley, now has a heated swimming pool (there is an outdoor pool available in summer), and weight machines. The inn's 25 acres are surrounded by hundreds of additional acres for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Its hilltop setting also provides excellent terrain for tubing. Downhill skiing is a 15-minute drive away at Mount Snow.

A highlight of our stay was dinner. Seated at one of eight tables in the dining room, a fireplace crackling nearby, we began with coconut encrusted shrimp. For the main course, we feasted on filet mignon topped with a bourbon infused demi-glace and a dijon-encrusted rack of lamb with a Merlot sauce.

Formal as the setting is, the staff is friendly and casual -- patiently explaining the expansive wine list and forgiving our lack of knowledge -- creating the feel of an intimate ski lodge.

As we retired to our room, too full to nibble the chocolate chip cookies left on a platter in the front entranceway, we half hoped to see the spirited Mrs. Brown -- if only to express our thanks for a lovely stay in quarters not our own.

Contact Sarah Schweitzer at schweitzer@globe.com.

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