Guests Become Part of the Family at Manchester's Wilburton Resort
Words and photos courtesy of Seven Days
Guests Become Part of the Family at Manchester's Wilburton Resort
By Melissa Pasanen
Guests at the grand turn-of-the-20th-century Wilburton mansion — or at one of the property's five private vacation homes and 12 villa suites dotted across the 30-acre grounds — can truly relax and get away from it all.
Or, if they so choose, they can plan their southern Vermont visit with a more specific purpose.
The Manchester resort's Become a Vermonter Experience, for example, is an add-on option to a four-month stay. The package description starts with a question: "Do you have what it takes to be a Vermonter?"
The hands-on "training" includes an organic, vegetarian cooking class; lessons in wood chopping and maple sugaring; a curated list of real estate brokers, schools and rescue shelters "for your new Vermont dog"; and, naturally, a gallon of maple syrup.
For those who seek a shorter sojourn and already have a family fur baby — or a princess of any species, age or gender — the Royal Doggie Slumber Party & Princess Ball Mother's Day Weekend Extravaganza from May 6 to 8 might appeal.
Everyone will mingle at a welcome "paw-ty" and take a group doggie stroll through historic Manchester Village. Guests will dress to the nines for a Princess & Puppy Parade followed by a Princess Ball with a live concert and ballroom dancing lessons in the Wilburton's tented, marble-floored wedding pavilion. The jam-packed schedule also includes a pajama party campfire with s'mores, a Mother's Day pancake breakfast and a professional photographer to capture the memories.
Such original itinerary options are just the tip of the creative iceberg at the Wilburton, a family-run vacation and event destination that the Levis family has hosted with warmth and ingenuity for 35 years.
"We didn't buy it to run it like a Hyatt," proclaims the Wilburton's theme song, composed by second-generation innkeeper and singer-songwriter Melissa Levis. She is rarely seen without her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Jetson, by her side.
Prior to working full time for the family business, Melissa had a successful career as a children's performer in New York City. She shares innkeeping duties with her older sister, Tajlei Levis, a lawyer and playwright. Tajlei manages the busy summer and fall wedding season at the picturesque site, which is perched on a hill with panoramic views of the Battenkill Valley.
"We call her the Lady Wilburton," Melissa said of the mansion before a recent tour for this reporter and a couple from New York who was considering booking a family reunion on the property.
Built in 1902 by a railroad tycoon from Chicago, the 15,000-square-foot, 11-bedroom brick country home has been a progressive boarding school, an invitation-only summer resort, and RKO Pictures' country getaway for business meetings and movie star dalliances.
The Wilburton is decorated as befits a lady — and, oh, the tales that lady could tell.
Antique crystal chandeliers glitter with memories of a century of dinner parties. Walls bloom with flowered paper and gilt-edged mirrors. A china coffee service sits on an ornate silver tray as if waiting for a butler to glide by and swoop it up.
An original grandfather clock stands solemn witness. Above the massive carved-stone living room fireplace, Melissa and Tajlei's mother, Georgette Levis, smiles warmly down from a large framed photograph.
"The more joy at the Wilburton, the more Mom laughs in heaven," Melissa said of her mother, who died of cancer in 2014.
Across the mansion living room hangs a theater poster for The Sisters Rosensweig by Georgette's sister, the late Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
Creativity clearly runs deep in this family. In fact, thinking outside the box is exactly what drove the Levises to buy the Wilburton.
Georgette became the original family innkeeper after her husband, Albert, a psychiatrist, bought the inn in 1987 to mark his 50th birthday. The couple, who also have two sons, owned a vacation home in Manchester, where Georgette and her brood had lived full time since 1976. Albert maintained his clinical practice in Connecticut and commuted back and forth until 2005.
Albert and his family were Greek Jews who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. That experience has driven his lifelong quest to understand and teach conflict resolution. He initially bought the Wilburton property "to have a place to share his scholarship," Melissa explained. "It was supposed to be a retreat center."
Although that plan has never fully come to fruition, the estate does host his Museum of the Creative Process. It's full of detailed posters diagramming how creativity is a "scientific conflict resolution phenomenon."
Today, the family patriarch is an active 84-year-old who swims daily and lives in a home neighboring the Wilburton. He occasionally offers classes or talks about his work. His four children revolve around him like planets circling a sun.
About five minutes away from the Wilburton, the family's original vacation property is now Earth Sky Time Community Farm, an organic vegetable farm and bakery run by son Oliver with his family. They are often at the Wilburton to cater events. Max, the youngest, has a doctorate in psychology and teaches at Dartmouth College, but he helps out, too.
"We do this as a team," Tajlei said.
"There's something about hospitality that's deeply personal," Melissa added.
In that vein, the Levises balance the Wilburton's Gilded Age roots with distinctive, intimate family touches.
Take, for example, the elegant rose-pink Bridal Suite on the second floor. It is furnished with beautifully preserved antique dressers, richly upholstered chaise lounges and a four-poster bed. It also displays personal treasures, such as a wedding portrait of Georgette's mother and Albert and Georgette's intricately illustrated ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract.
These details make the Wilburton memorable, as does the sculpture trail that meanders across the grounds to illustrate Albert's analysis of conflict resolution. The eclectic art collection includes repurposed farm machinery, filing cabinets and bathtubs; a grouping of larger-than-life golden pharaohs that was once displayed at New York City's Lincoln Center; and murals that deploy the Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for the emotional stages of conflict resolution. Exploring the art is an interesting and active diversion for visitors, whether or not they choose to puzzle through the philosophical complexity.
"I'm sure people are 50-50 on Doc's art," longtime guest Pam Ogden of Hudson Falls, N.Y., said with a chuckle.
Ogden, however, is 100 percent in on the Wilburton experience. She and two close friends discovered it 17 years ago for a girls' weekend and have returned twice a year since, except during the first year of the pandemic.
From the friends' inaugural visit during a blizzard, the Levises "just made you feel like family," Ogden said. "You drive up that long, winding driveway, and it's such a feeling."
The women always stay in Room 5, which has been dubbed the Best Friends Room in their honor. An entire bookshelf of photographs on the second floor of the mansion chronicles their biannual visits.
The trio doesn't venture far from the Wilburton grounds, except for a little outlet shopping. In the winter, the women cozy up by the fireplace and decorate the Christmas tree. In the summer, "We take a blanket to the lawn for a picnic and have drinks by the pool," Ogden said. "It's so quiet, a great place to self-reflect."
For those who crave more activity, the area offers plenty to do — from snow sports at Stratton Mountain Resort or Bromley Mountain to hiking trails in the Wilburton woods and on Mount Equinox. Nearby landmarks include the Southern Vermont Arts Center and Hildene, the impressive estate built by Abraham Lincoln's son Robert.
Manchester also boasts a good number of restaurants for its size. On a recent visit, my husband and I relished a regionally sourced, beautifully executed dinner at the Crooked Ram. We also picked up excellent freshly baked almond croissants and granola, along with a tub of local yogurt, from Earth Sky Time for breakfast.
Although the Wilburton used to offer breakfast to guests staying in the mansion, COVID-19 prompted a shift away from the bed-and-breakfast model to more group events: family reunions, retreats and theme weekends. Individual travelers are still welcome but are more likely to find availability in the comfortably appointed villa suites, fitted with kitchenettes, than in the mansion.
Dogs are also welcome for an additional charge, except in the mansion. Cavalier King Charles spaniels always stay for free, and all Vermont dogs stay for free this spring. Other current specials include A Room of One's Own, a midweek writer's getaway of four nights for the price of three.
If there's any place with the creative ambience to inspire the next great American novel, the Wilburton is it.
About the series
This series, a partnership between Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing and Seven Days, will run seasonally, presenting curated excursions in every corner of Vermont. The idea is to highlight the state's restaurants, retailers, attractions and outdoor adventures so Vermonters and visitors alike can plan safe, local trips and discover new corners of the state. Happy traveling, and stay safe.