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Money is No Object for the Resort Owner and Guests; Winvian, a 113-acre
 Resort Hotel,  Taking Shape in the Connecticut Country Side

By Eric Gershon, The Hartford Courant, Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Oct. 9, 2006 --MORRIS -- Not all treehouses are created equal.

Take the one in the woods off Alain White Road: Equipped with a whirlpool bathtub, steam shower, two fireplaces, and heated floor, this duplex will rent for $1,950 a night.

Guests staying at the beaver lodge next door pay the same rate, sleeping in a custom-made bed of walnut, cherry, maple and pine beneath a shiny dome of genuine beaver sticks.

A beaver carved into one bedpost discretely faces away from the sleepers.

Treehouse and Beaver Lodge are two of 18 Connecticut-themed luxury cottages at Winvian, a 113-acre resort hotel scheduled to open late this fall. Helicopter cottage incorporates most of a restored Sikorsky helicopter retired by the Coast Guard. Secret Society hints at Yale University's Skull and Bones temple. Connecticut Yankee -- a nod to the Mark Twain novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" -- evokes a feudal lord's lair with its herringbone-pattern brick fireplace.

Sprawling over a Litchfield County landscape of open pasture and orchard, stone paths, stone walls, and Koi-filled ponds, Winvian offers architectural spectacles that few are likely to behold, given the price: Winvian has a no-drop-in policy. Even guests with pre-paid reservations (a requirement) must stop at the main gate (to be installed) and buzz for access, general manager Michael Nijdam said.

At the low end, cottages will rent for $1,450 a night, an eye-popping if not unheard of sum, as even Winvian's owner, Winthrop H. Smith Jr., allows.

"You say, 'Wow!'" the former Merrill Lynch executive said by phone from Vermont, where he lives and is one of the owners of the Sugarbush ski resort.

The room fee covers more than just the sleeping chambers, Smith said, adding that many luxury hotels charge $600-$1000 for the room alone. Guests at Winvian won't pay extra for meals, drinks, or most services. All rooms also come with unlimited access to a 130-variety wine cellar in the main building, a restored 1775 colonial that houses dining rooms, parlors, and an art gallery.

Not that anyone likely to spend $2,000 for one night in a treehouse is looking for a bargain.

For Winvian patrons, "Obviously, money is no object," said Treehouse architect John Connell.

Smith declined to discuss how much he and his family, Winvian's sole financial backers, are investing in the project.

They didn't have to pay for the land, which has been in the Smith family since Win Smith's father, a Merrill Lynch co-founder, bought it in the late 1940s. The elder Smith and his wife, Vivian, called it Winvian Farms.

Win Smith inherited the property. In the late 1990s, he and his family began talking about what to do with it.

"I worried that if I sold it, somebody would come in and do a 'highest and best use,'" most likely a residential development, he said. (The Town of Morris rezoned the neighborhood to allow for the resort, according to Nijdam.)

A daughter, Heather Smith, suggested the Smiths do at Winvian what they'd already done on a smaller scale at The Pitcher Inn in Warren, Vermont: Invite a group of independent architects to design upscale lodgings according to a theme. At Winvian, they would design entire cottages rather than rooms or suites within a larger building.

"We thought the same idea would work," Win Smith said.

David Sellers, a former Yale architecture professor who had interested the Smiths in The Pitcher Inn project, helped them recruit 14 other architects, many of them with Yale connections.

Working separately but all with a Connecticut or rustic New England theme in mind, they came up with 18 cottages, ranging in size from 950 to 1,250 square feet. Most of them are nearing completion.

While the Smiths expect the novelty of Winvian's accommodations to attract affluent urban couples looking for adventure, they also plan to offer the whole property -- at $32,000 per night -- as a site for corporate retreats, weddings, car launches, private fashion shows, and film screenings, for example. The property includes a separate 1,265-square-foot boardroom cottage with a 26-foot conference table and a converted barn with a catering kitchen.

Except when the entire property has been rented, guests will generally be limited to fewer than 40, or two per cottage and two in a suite in the main building, The Seth Bird House, according to Nijdam, who was general manager at The Pitcher Inn.

Winvian's primary dwelling when the Smiths used the property as a private estate, the house and adjacent addition contain dining rooms, parlors (including "The Blue Parlor" -- painted bright yellow), a wine cellar, a brandy and cigar lounge, and game room. There's art for sale and a spa.

One of Winvian's cottages is called Maritime, but the resort's promotional brochures predictably omit reference to a dark event linking Winvian to an infamous World War II naval disaster.

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1968, U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Butler McVay III, the first of Win Smith Jr.'s stepfathers, shot and killed himself outside the main house. He was found in his dress blues gripping a toy soldier in one hand. McVay was captain of the U.S.S. Indianapolis when, in July 1945, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea. Nearly 900 sailors perished in shark-infested waters.

Court-martialed for failing to steer a zigzag course, McVay was exonerated in 2001.

The Smiths and Nijdam, who shares general management duties with his wife, Luciana, declined to say more specifically when Winvian would open for business, other than later this fall. Win and Heather Smith said reservations have been booked for November.

"When you're looking at charging $2,000 a night, you've got to be spot-on," said Nijdam.

Contact Eric Gershon at egershon@courant.com.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

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