Seeing daylight in Vermont

April L. Dowd photos (Fire photo provided)



MANCHESTER, VT -- It took a mere seven months, from design to ribbon cutting, for Jerry and Liz Lavalley to achieve their dream: owning a luxurious inn and restaurant in the shadow of Mt. Equinox, part of the bucolic Green Mountains.

Well, there was that little matter of the fire. The one that burned the 1850 structure to the ground exactly 30 days after they moved up from Dallas and closed on the property.

"I've never had a problem talking,'' said the gregarious Jerry. "I've spoken in front of thousands of people many times. But Liz was out of town at her sister's home when I called to tell her what had happened and I literally could not say a word. I was in shock.''

The culprit was an electrical malfunction in a clothes dryer. The resulting blaze destroyed the Reluctant Panther Inn, a building that had become a local icon under a series of owners.

"We had to make some fast decisions, but I just kept thinking about the fire and the rubble that was left,'' Jerry said. "We had completely changed our lives to come here and all I could think about was what we'd lost. Liz was the one who said it was like mourning a death and that we had to look ahead, not back.''

When they did, what they saw was an opportunity.

The original purple-painted Reluctant Panther had been an organic structure, added to over the years as need and inspiration demanded. A new Reluctant Panther could be what the Lavalleys wanted rather than what they had bought and would have to slowly modify.

They commissioned local architect Ramsey Gourd to help them lay out a grand scheme for a larger complex with expansive suites, a large formal dining room, exterior elements that incorporated structural and design notes from the original inn, coffered ceilings in many public spaces, space for original artwork to be displayed, and an infrastructure that supported modern technology -- iPod docking stations in some rooms, high-tech coffee brewers, unobtrusive flat-screen TV sets, Jacuzzi tubs -- within what for all intents looks like a historic inn.

During the interview process with builders, the Lavalleys (at right) stressed the need to be able to adhere to an extremely tight schedule or not to bother bidding on the job.

"We knew we had to create and maintain a very strict schedule,'' Liz explained. "It was going to be a huge job, and if you didn't keep the pace it would never get done.''

Plus the need to quickly generate a cash flow where one didn't exist?

"Well, yes, that did enter into it,'' she conceded with a smile.

The Lavalleys are used to fast-tracking processes and negotiating to get what they want.

Jerry, a native of Plattsburgh, had been vice president in charge of non-U.S. operations for Fujitsu, the international communications and information technology company. Liz, a native of Washington, D.C., had been chief operating officer of Capgemeni Energy, a French-owned company formed by a collaboration with TXU Corp., where she had been a senior vice president.

"We were fortunate to find enough good craftsmen locally to be able to make this project work,'' Liz said.

However, two Texas transplants played gigantic roles in what became a fascinating and luxurious new incarnation of the Reluctant Panther -- Kyle J. Hugghins, a friend of their son Matt, and Liz herself.

Hugghins is a twentysomething who stayed on after the construction was completed and now, with Royal S. Smith, runs Cross Timbers Builders in Manchester Center. The Lavalleys credit him with the majority of the interior structural design which is marked by unique structural angles and traffic patterns for each of the new building's 11 suites as well as some of the nine suites in three adjacent cottages not affected by the fire.

"Kyle has an incredible sense of design and some really imaginative ways to make best use of the space, especially for someone so young,'' Liz said, as Jerry nodded vigorously in agreement.

She took on the interior decorating, and has created individual personalities for each guest suite while maintaining a harmonious feel to the whole inn. Her deft hand with colors, fabrics and themes is stunning, particularly in such a short space of time.

Money, lots of it, played a large role in the speed and quality of construction and outfitting of the inn. Jerry won't quote a full dollar amount, but does say even though they were decently insured "we put over a million dollars of our own money into this project'' once they made the decision to stay after the fire.

The actual reconstruction began in April 2006 and was completed on Nov. 11 when the three first-floor guest suites and dining areas were opened. Just seven months from start to finish. The eight upstairs suites opened in short order and the Reluctant Panther was back and making people take notice.

So much notice, in fact, that the inn recently won regional honors in the annual awards given by hospitality industry magazine Sante for best hotel/resort bar, then topped that by being named the No. 1 bed-and-breakfast in the state by the Vermont Hospitality Council, an arm of the state Chamber of Commerce.

However, the process wasn't without its rough patches.

In the standalone Porter House, for example, what is known as the Panther Suite has an odd configuration with a double-sized spa tub smack in the middle of the rear room. Kyle thought it would be great fun to emphasize it by putting a column on each of the four corners of the tub. Jerry thought the idea was ridiculous. After much energetic sparring, Jerry gave in.

While it takes a certain appreciation for the pillars, which don't at all go with the bedroom area, the suite has turned out to be one of the most requested in the complex.

"Honeymooners, people looking for a romantic getaway … that's the sort of thing people want the suite for,'' Jerry said.

When I noticed the glass-enclosed shower for two with rainfall shower heads and the spa tub for two and the fireplace in each room, the term "aquatic playroom'' came to mind.

The fireplaces are another frequent touch in the inn. Every room has one or two fireplaces, and several even have bathroom fireplaces. In the Adirondack Great Camp-style Akwanok Suite (above), for example, a see-through fireplace divides the sleeping area with its custom birch bark headboard from the sitting area with its plus chairs and village views.

The elegant Pierre Lamotte Suite is named for the French military man and eventual governor of Montreal credited with establishing the first European settlement in what became the state of Vermont. Coincidentally, an ancestor of Jerry Lavalley served under him. The colonial-style suite takes up a major piece of the rebuilt main house and offers a private entrance for those who might be seeking anonymity.

The Justin Morgan Suite (at right) is a paen to the late-18th century local composer and teacher who was the developer of the horse breed that bears his surname. As one might expect, the suite has an equine theme in a spacious sitting area that features a hand-built brick fireplace.

Adjacent suites -- The Lady Slipper, with an elegant four-poster bed, and the Taconic with its graceful sleigh bed -- can be joined to form a two-bedroom, two-bath suite.

The descriptions can go on, but the point is made. Liz's designs utilizing a mix of the couple's own family furniture and antiques, items purchased locally -- many from the eclectic Depot 62, an odd combination of furniture store and cafe -- and artisan-crafted decor (hand-flocked wallpaper in the public women's restroom; a handpainted street-scene mural on canvas by decorative painter Kimberley Ray of nearby Londonderry that covers every wall of the first-floor reception area) have resulted in a truly unique inn.

For those whose purpose is to eat and drink rather than stay over, there are several possibilities.

The downstairs Panther Pub (right) is a funky collection of rich woods, plaster walls, a sparkling bar, even a Wurlitzer jukebox Jerry used to have in his house, complete with mood-inducing recordings such as "To Know Him Is To Love Him'' (The Teddy Bears, 1958) and "Runaround Sue'' (Dion, 1961).

After drinks at the bar made by drinks manager Josh Cohen, we went into the plush main-floor dining room (below). Windows on three sides create a light, airy feel despite the heavy counterpoint of coffered ceilings and a grand piano on the premises. Dining is presided over by son Matt (the Lavelleys also have two daughters, one in high school locally, the other in law school in Texas).

In October, Justin Dain took over the kitchen from startup chef Daniel Jackson. He trained at both the Culinary Institute of America and the New England Culinary Institute and previously cooked in Boston. If the dinner I had is typical of Dain's cuisine, the Lavalleys are blessed.

His tuna tartare appetizer was of such quality "I took one taste and told Liz this is the guy we have to hire,'' Jerry said with a laugh.

Liz confesses she is so in awe of Dain's cloudlike ravioli she can't get past it to try something else. I agreed with the tuna tartare evaluation, and such perfectly-prepared entrees as handmade gnocchi, silky diver scallops and bold filet mignon show the chef's versatility. His pastry chef, Peter Adams, is an added bonus with his feather-light desserts such as poached pear with spice cake.

It has been a long road since Sept. 11, 2001, when the idea of a huge life change began forming in Jerry Lavalley's mind. He was on business in Japan when the terrorist-aimed planes hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

"I was stranded there with flights being shut down all over,'' he recalled. "All I wanted to do was be with my family but I couldn't beg, borrow or steal a ride and the ocean was too much of a swim. I knew then and there I wanted to change my life and never be separated from Liz and the kids like that again.''

Liz had the same epiphany, and it led to a lot of brainstorming. A dress shop at a mall? A consulting business of some sort?

"Liz said `How about running a B&B in Vermont?' just as a suggestion of one sort of thing we might want to consider. We eventually started to actually consider that path, and we looked at possibilities all over the country -- mostly anything south of the Mason & Dixon Line because of the weather. But then we broadened the search.''

The final decision was made when a visit to another Vermont property up for sale was scuttled over an odd bit of business.

"The owner had a rule that no children under 14 could stay there, and he wouldn't even bend it for a potential buyer with a very worldly and sophisticated 13-year-old daughter,'' Jerry said. "That really ticked me off, so I told the real estate agent I was out of there.

"He said he knew a place that probably would allow my daughter to stay over with us and it just happened to be for sale. That was the Reluctant Panther. Funny how things work out."






Manchester and The Mountains
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• Hildene: Lincoln Family Home
Summer Festival Horse Shows
Orvis Fly Fishing
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