By Curt Peterson, Standard Correspondent
HARTLAND — When Sumner Mansion Inn owner Ken Lucci stepped up on the hearth, the 100 guests at Friday’s Mt. Ascutney Hospital fundraiser event expected him to welcome them to the inn and to turn the stage over to Kevin Donovan, vice president of the hospital. Before the introduction, however, Lucci made a surprise announcement: He and his sister Brenda Bradley have contracted to purchase the Juniper Hill Inn in Windsor. The attendees cheered and applauded. The general consensus was that restoring and reopening the historic hotel was something for which everyone had been hoping, and would be a great boon to Windsor as well.
Juniper Hill was built as a residence in 1902 by Maxwell Everts, general counsel for the Southern Pacific Railway. According to Lucci, the structure is the largest colonial-style mansion in the U. S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt all stayed there. Everts died of illness in Ontario in 1913.
Since 1944 the property has been operated as an inn. Lucci contacted one of the previous owners, Robert Pearl, who said he and his wife Susanne “made a profit every year they owned it.” In 2005 the Pearls sold the Inn to Ari Nikki and Robert Dean, two men from New York City, for approximately $1.4 million.
Dean and Nikki hired decorators and landscape architects with in mind creating a five-star restaurant and country inn experience that would draw the well to do.
“If I’ve learned one thing,” Lucci said, “it’s that you have to focus either on being a restaurateur or an innkeeper – you can’t be both. They are two very different businesses.” He feels this might be one reason for Dean’s and Nikki’s failure at Juniper Hill. “If you look at the reviews of their operation,” he explained, “You’ll see all the good comments have to do with the food. They were trying to create a $300 a night hotel to go along with the restaurant, and there’s not a room in this hotel worth anywhere near $300 a night.”
Gordon Ramsay featured Juniper Hill on his Hotel Hell TV program in August 2013. Dean and Nikki told Ramsay they were losing $200,000 a year running the hotel. Ramsay discovered the employees were not reimbursed for hotel expenses they had paid, and that Dean was giving away hospitality and food to his friends while pocketing the tips they had left for the staff. During the fall Ramsay instituted some system and management changes, changed the main floor arrangements and worked on the owners’ attitudes. By Hotel Hell standards, Ramsay’s intervention had improved their ratings substantially.
In April 2014 their mortgagee foreclosed on Juniper Hill, and the Inn was closed. The structure had already begun to show signs of deferred maintenance, and lack of occupancy only accelerated its decline. When the bank put the property up for sale at auction, it caught Lucci’s and Bradley’s attention.
“When we drove up the Juniper Hill Inn driveway the first time,” Lucci told the Mt. Ascutney crowd, “Brenda said, ‘we have to save this place!’” One set of buyers outbid them at the auction, but later backed out of the deal, and the Sumner Mansion duo expect to take title, subject to due diligence, for $400,000 in November. Lucci said they are negotiating with the state regarding what improvements have to be made in order to operate the building as a hotel. Some of the requirements include a sprinkler system, some changes in second means of egress, and Americans with Disabilities Act adaptations.
A tour of the buildings and grounds tends to be depressing. While reminders of past magnificence are everywhere, so are rot, disrepair, poor workmanship and lack of care. Inside, every room gives the impression that people left in a hurry; beds are unmade, rooms left uncleaned, and there are dirty glasses on the bed stands and dirty dishes in the kitchen.
“It does give you the eerie feeling that this is the Titanic,” Lucci said, “and that Robert and Ari left on the first lifeboat.”
Bradley told her brother that “The bones are all still here,” indicating the glory could be restored to the hotel with enough money. Lucci pointed out the swimming pool, which Dean and Nikki had covered with plywood and outdoor carpeting to serve as either a patio or a dance floor.
“We’re going to fill that in and make it a real patio,” he said.
Everywhere there are cartons of unopened, unwrapped decorations, artwork, brochures and equipment that Dean and Nikki purchased but never even unpacked. There are terry-lined white bathrobes embroidered in gold with the Juniper Hill logo in each room and extras hanging in storage.
“I think they had a buying problem,” said Lucci, referring to the previous owners.
There is a wonderful view of the Connecticut River Valley from the hotel. On the fourteen-acre lot there is also a carriage house where some of “the bones” may be gone; the second floor is sagging badly into the first, windows are broken or missing, and someone has recently smashed their way into the building – the door is shattered and the padlock and “No Trespassing” sign left dangling.
But the buyers’ hopes are high.
“The hidden value here is the land,” Lucci said. “If we can restore the hotel and get it running profitably, we could expand the hospitality by building cottages down on the hill.” He and his sister plan to have a bar, and pub food, but not a full restaurant. Their plan is that Juniper Hill will host weddings and other events, and serve as overflow hospitality for the Sumner Mansion Inn.
This article first appeared in the October 22, 2015 edition of the Vermont Standard.