SHELBURNE, Vt.— ALEC WEBB remembers games of hide-and-seek in the Main Hall of the Big House at Shelburne Farms, home-cooked meals eaten family style in the echoing Marble Room, a pet crow flying through some of the 110 rooms.
Mr. Webb spent the summers of his youth at the turn-of-the-century mansion, which was built by Lila Vanderbilt Webb and William Seward Webb, his great-grandparents. For him, the Big House was ''just like a rambling summer camp where you had loads of fun.''
It is in the spirit of what Mr. Webb's wife, Marilyn, called ''gracious hospitality'' that Shelburne Farms Resources is renovating the Big House - or Shelburne House - into an inn. The renovations are to be completed for a July 1 opening, and are intended to give guests a taste of life in the Gilded Age while making money for the unusual public cultural center that the estate has become. It helped, Mrs. Webb said, that the interior of the mansion had been almost untouched since Lila Vanderbilt Webb chose the decor in 1899. About 80 percent of the furniture is original to the house, a rambling and eclectic mix of Queen Anne and shingle style with a brick facade designed by Robert H. Robertson.
It was in 1899 that Dr. and Mrs. Webb finished building their ''summer cotttage'' on 3,000 acres of prime farmland on the shore of Lake Champlain, just south of Burlington. Dr. Webb, a physician turned railroad baron, envisioned his estate as a model farm. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City, to lay out the grounds, and Gifford Pinchot, a forestry expert, to oversee the forest land. For about 20 years, the farm prospered.
But changes in the tax law, and the increasing costs of maintenance and staff labor, changed the fortunes of the Webbs' model farm. The house fell into a gradual decline. Webb heirs continued to use the ''cottage'' as a summer house but in 1969, Alec Webb's father, Derick, gathered the family on the south porch and outlined plans to develop some of the land, which had been pared to about 1,000 acres. ''We all reacted violently,'' said Marshall Webb, 39 years old, Alec's older brother and a member of the board. Alec Webb said: ''It was the 60's, and we were all into the environmental ethic. We thought the best place to start was at home.''
The two brothers and their four siblings decided to try to keep the farm, to use it as a public center to teach the stewardship of natural resources.
They formed Shelburne Farms Resources, a nonprofit organization of which Mrs. Webb is president and Mr. Webb a member of the board. They began programs for children, and opened the Big House for teacher-training sessions, business seminars and music festivals.
By the early 1980's, it became clear that more money was needed. A board member suggested turning the house into an inn, with the profits given to the foundation to keep the land and existing programs available to the public. A Burlington architect, Martin S. Tierney, toured the house in December 1983 and found major leaks in the black slate roof, some structural damage and a slightly crumbling foundation. ''Generally, it was in fairly good shape,'' he said.
Mr. Tierney drew up plans to modify the former servants' wing for the inn staff, build a new kitchen in the old butler's pantry and create four new bathrooms from three closets and a valet's room. Most of the other rooms - the tea room, game room and dining room, for example - will retain their original functions.
The restoration of the interior was supervised by Linda Seavey of Circa Interiors of South Hero, Vt. Ms. Seavey spent months pouring over turn-of-the-century photographs of the rooms and ordered fresh coats of white paint for the bathrooms, which still contain the deep, free-standing tubs and other original porcelain fixtures.
Ms. Seavey said she took ''a few liberties'' with original designs, ''lightening up'' some of the deep reds and heavy draperies in vogue when Lila Vanderbilt Webb chose the decor.
The restoration work extends to the estate gardens, which were Lila Vanderbilt Webb's special love.
The gardeners used Lila Webb's garden books, seed catalogues and autochrome photographs as a guide. Her Italian statuary remains, and the Webbs hope to rebuild the wooden pergola.
Though structural damage was not extreme, repairs were expensive: $50,000 was need to repair the roof.
The plumbing and electrical system needed total overhauling. And state building regulations had to be met: a sprinkler system and smoke alarms and exit lights had to be installed and steel beam reinforcements added.
To create an endowment, Shelburne Farms Resources sold lease-holds on about 30 acres of land. Two years ago, Mrs. Webb began raising some of the $2 million needed for the renovations. Large and small donations came in, totaling $1.8 million to date. One donation Mrs. Webb said she treasures was a $25 check from a Massachusetts woman in her 80's who was born in Vermont and wrote, ''Shelburne Farms stands for my values and for Vermont.''
Other companies donated goods and the Old Deerfield Company of Cedar Grove, N.J., has developed a Shelburne Farms line using copies of 18 of the original wall coverings found in the house, in fabric and paper. The work is nearing completion. The last bits of wall covering are being pasted into place, the white cotton linens and towels and the white damask Victorian-style bedspreads purchased.
Mr. Tierney said: ''The decision to turn this building into an inn was an enlightened one, because it retains much of the original function of the building. If you sit long enough in any of the rooms, you can feel the vibrations of times past echoing through. The past comes and speaks to you.'' And that, he said, is what historic renovation is all about.
Photos of the Big House at Shelburne Farms, its grounds, and owners (NYT/Paul O. Boisvert) (page C8)
Source : http://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/04/garden/gilded-age-splendor-a-mansion-s-new-life.html