This family is all inn (and they didn’t buy it to run it like a Hyatt)
MANCHESTER, Vt. — It was the autumn of his 50th year when Dr. Albert J. Levis, a psychiatrist with expertise in the study of conflict analysis, whimsically purchased a 30-acre, 25-room country estate named the Wilburton Inn in Manchester Village, Vt. He and his wife, Georgette Wasserstein Levis (the real-life inspiration for the character Gorgeous in “The Sisters Rosensweig”) nursed the 1902 Chicago-style mansion into a modernized bed & breakfast, made for group travel and romantic retreats. The couple’s children, Melissa, Max, Tajlei, and Oliver, had pursued various creative degrees, finding success in their respective fields of music, academia, theater, and culinary arts. Their talents are interwoven into the hotels’ amenities and offerings.
Today, we’re greeted by Melissa Levis, a vivacious former children’s songwriter and entertainer, who began a biweekly Manhattan commute in 2013, shortly before the family matriarch passed away the following February.
Not long after we check in, the innkeeper called to ask us to say hello in the lobby. Melissa was holding the leash to a comically exhausted Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Jetson while a yoga-mat-toting couple coo over him. They explained they booked a room after meeting the pup, in a similar state of exhaustion, while outlet shopping in downtown Manchester months earlier.
“He’s my $30,000 dog,” she joked after they’ve checked in and she walks us through the common space where plush couches are arranged to encourage communal gathering. “Not because he’s expensive, but because that’s about how much business he’s brought in.”
We were chatting with Melissa and her father, Albert, who explains the potentially factually dotty history of the land’s transfer of property (a hearsay high-stakes poker game), when they remembered a box of sweets sent by a family of a former bride who had been married at the inn. They send boxes of chocolates and candies from their small-town Pennsylvania factory each year; no payment is ever accepted.
Himalayan salted caramels, brightly colored jelly beans, and solid chocolate Seder plates spill onto the table. A pair from Montreal soon join in, snatching up caramels and asking us for our thoughts on this season’s Bruins, as is customary upon learning we’re from Boston. Another couple with two young sons stumbled through minutes later because children are like magnets to unopened sweets. Albert grinned as they eyed the chocolate, and their parents shrugged, because, well, it’s vacation.
They’re a family of travel bloggers called the Wandering Wagars; they’re from Ontario, we all soon learned, before discovering their children had been named after two musicians (Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan). But unfortunately, Dylan prefers Cohen and vice versa.
Melissa’s New York neighbor, Egizio, happens to be staying for the weekend and joins a few minutes later. She briefed us: “Madonna was his elevator girl in the ’80s.” The Montreal couple pipe up when he enters, “So we heard you used to know Madonna!” “Oh yes, yes,” he softly laughed, carrying a teacup poodle wearing a coral necklace and striped sweater, before striking up conversation with the husband. It turned out within seconds they’ve realized they have a Montreal friend in common.
At this point Melissa turned to us, stroking a set of double-length pearls that once were her mother’s, and whispered with a smile, “This is just what it’s like here at the Wilburton.”
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Most of the guest rooms at the Wilburton are named for the inn’s illustrious history and guests. Room 6 is the RKO Movie Star room, with a red velvet chaise longue and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers porcelain dolls. It pays homage to the years when RKO Pictures owned the inn and used its seclusion as a glamorous, discreet getaway for its stars and executives.
Down the hall is the Best Friends room, honoring three women from Albany who call themselves the “Twinkle Girls” and have spent their girls’ weekend at the Wilburton twice yearly for more than a decade. The three women, who also decorate the Inn’s annual Christmas tree, maintained a close friendship with Georgette until her death, when they returned again to drape the rooms in white.
Interactions with the Levises are inevitable at the Wilburton. They consider themselves family innkeepers — Max, Melissa, Tajlei, and Albert are equal partners — and it’s clearly a collaborative experience. Albert’s sculpture trail, a collection of larger-than-life works is located on the grounds of the estate, with the scholar himself available for tours and lengthy, intimate one-on-one lectures. (“He’s Peggy Guggenheim and Galileo in one,” Melissa told me early on.) The plan, they say, is to turn his life’s work into educational on-site workshops and retreats this summer for searching souls and self-discovery.
Tajlei, a lawyer turned playwright who fittingly wrote theatrical musical adaptations of “Green Acres” and Edith Wharton’s “Glimpses of the Moon,” co-owns the Wilburton’s growing properties with her sister and also splits her time between Vermont and New York. She manages their advertising and writes and produces their popular interactive Murder Mystery productions, where guests plunge into historical whodunits over dinner and dessert.
“The inn has been a canvas for each of our respective interests,” Tajlei said. “It’s a place for parties, a place for literary discussions, a place for shows. Any creative pursuit of ours or our guests, there’s room for it here.”
Max, a former Harvard educator cum innkeeper, provides the pace for the day-to-day; Melissa handles marketing and organizes group bookings — family reunions, yoga retreats. Not to be left out, the addictively airy bread at breakfast comes from Oliver’s organic operation, Earth Sky Time Farm, housed in the Manchester homestead where the Levis children grew up just five minutes down the road.
When they aren’t immediately available for an in-person greeting or a fireside glass of wine, the family’s personal photos printed on oversize poster boards line the walls, interspersed between the inn’s original artwork depicting the jockeys and society types who have dined there. Georgette, ethereal and serene like Daisy Buchanan, gazes out from above the fireplace hearth.
“We had a bed and breakfast consultant come through and they told us to take down all the family photos,” added Melissa. “And we said, ‘No, thank you very much.’ ”
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TripAdvisor and Yelp ratings for the inn are dotted with mentions of the Levises, a family so dedicated to their brand that Melissa penned a rather catchy theme song that you can watch on YouTube that croons, “We didn’t buy it to run it like a Hyatt.”
“My father is Greek, so hospitality runs in the blood,” said Tajlei. “We’ve always had big houses with open-door policies — now it’s just a little more commercialized. Plenty of guests have their own independent vacations and don’t hang out with us, and that’s great, too. But we’re good hosts and take a genuine interest in our guests. We care and want them to have a good time. And I think with an inn, opposed a hotel, people search for that personal connection.”
The family attributes Georgette for the change in tides at the Wilburton; she was the one to transform the inn into a year-round destination for both brides and their future families. (Beforehand, it was only open for summers.) Her spirit endures, in the romantic decor of the Bridal Suite and the open-door, ever generous hospitality of her remaining kin. But perhaps it is Melissa, who has become the smiling face of the inn, who is the torchbearer of Georgette’s “gay, light-hearted, fun” personality.
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Melissa maintains the SoHo loft, and her son retains his Manhattan schooling between her and her ex-husband, but her commute has increased by four hours (“if I don’t stop”) to and from the inn. In what may seem like a former life, she spent 20 years entertaining New Yorkers — both billionaires (commerce secretary Wilbur Ross) and babies — but a change in scenery has provided for what she calls a “midlife renaissance.” Her policy of letting all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels stay free is in keeping with her mother’s tradition of running the inn with heart.
She added, “ The more joy we bring at the inn, the more we honor our mom.”
As we part, Melissa waved to a young couple approaching the building. “And another begins,” she smiled. We say our goodbyes and she turns with open arms to the bride-to-be, but Jetson is already there first. “This is the Wilburton and Jetson. I’m Melissa. Welcome.”