'Immersing One's Self In History': Exploring The Inn At Shelburne Farms

Jun 5, 2017

In the late 19th century, Dr. William Seward Webb and his wife, Lila Vanderbilt Webb, built an estate on the shores of Lake Champlain. A new book dives into the history of that estate, which became Shelburne Farms.

Shelburne Farms: House, Gardens, Farm, and Barns, written and photographed by Glenn Suokko, takes readers back in time to the estate's early days and gives them a glimpse of its current state.

Vermont Edition recently took a trip to the Inn at Shelburne Farms – officially known as Shelburne House – to talk with Suokko about this particular aspect of the property.

Also joining the conversation was Alec Webb, great-grandson of William and Lila Webb, who grew up on the farm and wrote the foreword to Suokko's book.

Below are excerpts from the conversation with Suokko and Webb. Listen above to the interview.

The property's history

Webb describes Shelburne Farms has having had "three lives," the first being its days as a private agricultural estate beginning in the 1880s. Then in 1972, Webb and other members of his family created a nonprofit, eventually adding more of the land and buildings, including Shelburne House.

Today, the nonprofit Shelburne Farms promotes farm-to-school education, sustainable farming and forestry, and good conservation practices. The inn and fine-dining restaurant on the property are run out of Shelburne House, the former family home.

A photograph of a painting done in 1889 by George Munzig hangs on a bedroom wall in Shelburne House. It depicts Lila Webb with her son James Watson Webb.
Credit Glenn Suokko, Courtesy

The importance of Shelburne House:

"The house in particular is of great interest to me because when it became a National Historic Landmark, it opened to the public," Suokko says. "Back in 1985 to 1987 when it was going under a very sensitive restoration and it opened up ... as an inn, it could have opened up as [a] historic house with guided tours.

"But what's wonderful about it is that guests can use the house – they can sleep in the beds, they can eat at the tables, they can play pool at the pool table, they can relax on the porch. So it is in many ways steeping one's self, immersing one's self, in history."

From disrepair to renovation

In his book, Suokko describes how Shelburne House fell into disrepair and was not functional for years, a time which Webb himself remembers.

"When people walked in the front door in the 1960s you would have seen two set buckets catching water dripping through the ceiling," Webb recalls. "And the back of the house was gone and I mean, really, the house and the barns came within a hair of being lost in the '60s and '70s. It was a close call."

The arches and moldings seen here in Shelburne House's Corridor Hall came about as part of a renovation in the home around the turn of the 20th century, explains Suokko in "Shelburne Farms: House, Gardens, Farm, and Barns."
Credit Glenn Suokko, Courtesy

But because the whole space became a nonprofit foundation, it enabled Shelburne House to have an in-depth renovation.

"Today, it's remarkable how much it looks like it did 100 years ago," Suokko says. "I love history; I love historic houses, I have to admit. So being able to kind of step back in time and being here in this house is a little bit like fantasy, living someone else's life, because everything is so of a period and comprehensive.

"There's not a mix of say, mid-century modernist furniture in the [billiards] room we're standing in. It really is going back to a different era. So there's something kind of marvelous about that. How many houses have you been in where there is Elizabethan revival architecture in the kitchen or in the dining room? So it's quite unique."

A closer look at one room

Suokko's book profiles a number of rooms within Shelburne House, including the Marble Dining Room, the library and that billiards room.

A series of animal heads hang above a fireplace in the billiards room of Shelburne House. "There have been a lot of wonderful conversations that have happened in here," says Alec Webb of the room.
Credit Glenn Suokko, Courtesy

"The room is magnificent," Suokko explains of the Game Room. "High ceilings, wooden ceilings. Original lights from the late 1800s. A great big billiards table from New York City in the middle of it. A stone fireplace. There are, on the walls, lots of animal trophies from a different era – birds, bison, antelope, deer.

"The mood is very kind of dark and wonderful in here. The room is often used after dinner as a place for socializing."

Suokko also notes the significance of having the estate's vintage furniture and decor remain in the room.

"It's bridging the past with the present," Suokko says. "And keeping things pretty much the way they were so that, again, the visitor can see what life was like and how it informed this place."

Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Monday, June 5, 2017 during the noon hour; rebroadcast during the 7 p.m. hour.