Estate of Grace
An Orange County Tuscan mansion in distress gets a new lease on life as a luxurious country-house hotel
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Luxury defined: One of 20 guest bathrooms, all of which are clad in Carrera marble
Indulgent touches include Casa del Bianca linens and La Bottega soaps, shampoos, and lotions, whose custom scent was concocted for Glenmere by the Italian perfumer Laura Tonatto. “Women find it soothing, and men like it, too. I guess that’s why she’s called the ‘nose’ of Italy,” says Stenberg, laughing. Naturally, iPod docking stations, DVDs, and all modern conveniences are in place, although the flat-screen TVs look a little incongruous. “But you have to have them,” Stenberg remarks. “The original owners probably had 30 servants with hand puppets.” A swimming pool, fitness center, bocce and tennis courts, and a championship croquet court keep guests occupied. The spa will open at the end of the year, if all goes as planned.
Of course, the work did not go off without a few hitches. One significant hitch came in the form of intervention from the DEC. Jay Westerveld, an environmental activist from nearby Sugar Loaf, was concerned that the construction was disrupting habitat of the northern cricket frog. “The DEC required us to stop work and do tests to show whether there was habitat on the property,” Stenberg explains. “We chose a scientist from the list the DEC gave us,” who found no frogs. “Then the environmentalist said that because we’d paid the scientist, the study wasn’t impartial... Work was shut down a number of times. We did a study in summer and fall, and then they asked us to do the other two seasons, as well. We proved that the frogs weren’t coming and going, and they weren’t over-wintering. It turned out we don’t have them at all. It was an exercise in futility.” It was expensive, too, as the DEC imposed fines amounting to some $36,000 for violations regarding construction without necessary permits — in one instance, says Stenberg, after giving a verbal okay for work to proceed. Part of the fine is still in dispute, but the partners elected to pay the rest rather than engage in a protracted court battle.
A typical bedroom features an overstuffed armchair and antique accessories
Stenberg is exasperated at the memory. “I respect [Westerveld’s] passion for the environment,” he says. “I have it, too. But I believe in smart growth, in use that protects our environment. For anybody to refer to us as developers is ridiculous. We saved a neglected house. We even bought an additional 50 acres to protect it from development. But instead of being joyful while we did this, we were constantly being beaten up. We spent a great deal of money and downtime to prove these frogs weren’t here.” And what if they had been there? “We would have done whatever we needed to do to work around them,” Stenberg replies.
Because of the battle with the DEC, plans to restore Farrand’s walled garden have been shelved. “Right now, we’re too dispirited to attempt it. It’s a daunting task, and it’s closer to the lake,” Stenberg says, meaning the issue of frog habitat would likely come up again. But they cleared away the overgrowth and trash, leaving the skeleton of the garden visible. No surprise, the statuary and ornaments were pilfered over the decades. But one ornament remains: a stone basket of fruit that once sat on a pier. The partners adopted it as Glenmere’s logo, and put the real thing in the new courtyard garden, a Farrand-inspired space created by Boston landscape architects Morgan Wheelock, with pergolas, fountains, statuary, and a columned loggia.
The 1921 photo of the southern garden shows a walled pool and statuary, all part of Beatrix Farrand’s original design
The hotel and dining rooms opened early this year, with chef Mike Foss heading up the kitchen and DeSimone acting as expediter. Foss was formerly a private chef to Hollywood celebrities, “which makes him more amenable if you throw him a curve,” notes Stenberg. “He’s really engaging and funny. Of course, he has an ego, too — I think it comes with the hat.” Are they enjoying the fruits of their midlife crisis? “It’s certainly a life change,” he replies. “We’re a good team. Dan can be warm and funny, but he’s an acquired taste. So he’s in the background, and I’m out front.”
Glenmere almost immediately caught the attention of Architectural Digest, Robb Report, and other glossy favorites of the moneyed set. “It’s exciting,” Stenberg says. “My only fear is being put on a high level so quickly.” With room rates running from $550 to $3,400, the hotel is aimed at high rollers — but the rest of us in nearby towns can enjoy the restaurants. “The greatest surprise for us was how the local community embraced us,” Stenberg says. “Farmers from Pine Island, neighbors — they came to our doorstep to say thank you. They want us to succeed. They’re proud to have this in their backyard.”