I walked into the Inn at Shelburne Farms in Vermont and found it exactly as I’d left it, over 20 years before. The dark green velvet sofa (rather lumpy, because it’s been in the house since 1899), the huge family portraits, the marble fireplace, the spectacular view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks beyond. And the feeling that I’d just walked into an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
The inn had once been the home of Lila Vanderbilt and her husband, William Steward Webb. Her name comes first because it was her inheritance that financed the purchase of the 3800 acres for the farm in 1886 and the construction of the house in 1899. William Webb was a physician who, at the behest of his in-laws, became a finance and railroad executive (because…a doctor in the family…the horror of it!). Robert Henderson Robertson designed the buildings; Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape.
Fun family facts: Lila’s brother, George, built the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. Electra, of the Shelburne Museum, married Lila and William’s eldest son.
Twentieth century descendants struggled to keep up the farm and in 1972, they turn it into a nonprofit focusing on sustainable farming education. The house was restored and became an inn in 1987.
I stayed at the inn at least once a summer for several summers during the 1990s. We swam and canoed in bitter cold Lake Champlain, played Killer Croquet (that was our savage, take-no-prisoners version of the genteel lawn game), and wandered their many acres, communing with the cows and other farm animals.
The charm of the inn — especially for history tourists and would-be Daisy Buchanans — is that much of it remains as it was when the Webbs lived there. It’s like staying in a house museum. Going up the ornately carved staircase and past the Arnold and Locke stained glass windows (how I know that they’re Arnold and Locke, I’ll tell you later), I find my name on the door at the top of the stairs, as if I were a family guest there for a house party. We were in the Brown Room, which once belonged to Vanderbilt Webb, Lila’s youngest son. His portrait was above the fireplace and the room contains, to quote their website, “marquetry furniture that features sycamore and holly inlaid in mahogany.” Our windows open to the same garden, lake, mountain progression as the public rooms below.
The furniture, the paintings, the objects — all belonged to the Webbs when Shelburne was their summer house and it remains there now, furnishing the inn. When we asked the receptionist about the objects, she got out a binder with photographs and descriptions of some of the major pieces. It was, she told us, to be used by the staff as a reference, when guests asked about the furnishings. Since we wanted to know about every single item in the house, she handed us the binder and allowed us to take it away. We spent a fun morning wandering the entire house, searching for and identifying objects (which weren’t always where the binder said that they were). I’d highly recommending asking for the binder, then poking your noses everywhere. The doors to unoccupied guest rooms are kept open.
Adding to the feeling that you’re a Webb guest in the early years of the 20th century: there is no climate control, television or elevators. Cooling breezes off the lake and oscillating fans are the only form of air conditioning available. The inn closes for the winter.
We picked up soup, sandwiches, wine and one of the best chocolate cupcakes I’ve ever hand, from Harrington’s of Vermont, along the 2 minutes of road we traveled between the Shelburne Museum and the inn. We thought we’d take it into the garden and have a picnic, but were too exhausted and ate in the room. Since that involved reclining on a chaise lounge as I sipped my Rhine, I’m not complaining. There’s a public restaurant at the inn that serves breakfast and dinner. We had breakfast there the next morning — fine but nothing to write about.
As beautiful as the house is, the farm is just as lovely, so we tried to squeeze in some time — we were only at the inn for one night — to see it. We made a quick drive-by to the farm barn, where we watched them make cheese (they’re a working dairy farm with Brown Swiss Cows) and got up close to some animals. A leisurely walk or a brisk run on their miles of trails would have been nice, but there was no time for that on our hit-and-run tour of New England. Oh well. It gives me a reason to make these visits an annual — and longer — event again.
*I originally said that there was no wifi at the hotel, until Rough Seas in the Med pointed out that their website says that they do. I have no idea where I got the “no wifi.” I probably even used it. *sigh*