Wilburton Inn History
It all started when…
At the turn of the twentieth century, Manchester Village was already an elegant summer resort destination for the Gilded Age society set. Newspapers recorded the arrivals of famous visitors, who travelled by Twentieth Century Limited or private Pullman railroad cars, to enjoy Manchester’s fresh country air and popular golf courses. In 1895, Albert M. Gilbert, a Chicago industrialist, began his search for an extraordinary property. His friend Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son and president of the Chicago Pullman Company, recommended the stretch of farm land on River Road. Gilbert named his sprawling estate 'Strawberry Hill' and hired architects from Chicago to design a baronial home combining Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernism with the Arts and Crafts and English Tudor style. When the mansion was completed in 1902, Gilbert’s 500-acre gentleman’s farm was the largest private property in Manchester.
Only two years later, Gilbert’s health and finances were failing. He sold his cattle and acres of farmland to Robert Todd Lincoln to become part of the Hildene farm. Gilbert’s daughter Louise had married Yale graduate Day McBirney. Her husband purchased adjacent land from Gilbert and built Louise a 25-room mansion. The gesture was in vain. The society papers reported the scandal that Louise had run off on a steamer to Europe, leaving behind her husband and young son. She later remarried another social register fellow and moved to California. Louise’s mansion was purchased by the Levis family in 2004 and is once again part of the Wilburton estate.
Gilbert died in 1909 from “business stress.” His life insurance was worth almost two million dollars, but to cover his debts, his family sold the inn at a drastically reduced price. Chicago banker James Wilbur (whose bank may have held the mortgage) purchased the property and renamed the estate Wilburton Hall. He commissioned Wallace Nutting to create a portfolio of tinted photographs to celebrate his new home.
James Wilbur was a self-made millionaire, the cashier of the New Haven Railroad and founder of a bank and mortgage company in Chicago. Wilbur was a scholarly man with a passion for American history and a true love of Vermont. He paid for the first paved road in the state of Vermont. Wilbur felt that Vermont revolutionary hero Ethan Allen's brother Ira was the unsung hero of the war. Wilbur wrote his biography and commissioned the Ira Allen chapel and statue at the University of Vermont. Wilbur left $1.5 million for a University of Vermont scholarship that today exceeds $18 million. The University’s most generous donors are known as members of The Wilbur Society.
Wilbur died in 1928. A year later his heirs’ fortunes crashed alongside Wall Street. They sold the remaining farmland and auctioned off many of Wilburton Hall’s precious antiques and custom Steinway. Fortunately, the grandfather clock, the Oriental rugs and many of the original furnishings remain to convey a sense of the history and grandeur of the era.
From 1940-1944, Max and Gertrud Bondy leased Wilburton Hall as the new home of The Windsor School. The Bondys were intellectual progressive educators who emphasized the arts. Like the von Trapps, the Bondys fled Nazi Europe and found a haven in Vermont. Their co-ed boarding school began each day with music. From 1945-1975, the school operated in Lenox, Massachusetts. Thelonious Monk, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were some of the many artists who educated their children at Windsor Mountain School.
In 1945, Wilburton Hall opened its doors as the Wilburton Inn, an exclusive summer resort, under the leadership of Innkeeper Jack Ortlieb. Ortlieb reportedly began his hospitality career running a speakeasy. When he became a maître ’d at a New York City nightclub, he mingled with corporate leaders, celebrities, politicians and gangsters. These old friends were among the inn’s glamorous clientele. Guests visited by invitation only. Wilbur’s Billiard Room was transformed into an elegant restaurant. Ladies wore fur stoles and gloves. Jockeys and horse owners came from Saratoga to celebrate their victories over dinner. The Billiard Room is still decorated with vintage racehorse prints and bronzes from this era. The green houses on the estate were built at this time as additional guest rooms.
In 1977, Ortlieb’s widow sold the Inn to RKO Pictures - General Tire. RKO had recently sold the Equinox Hotel in Manchester so the Wilburton Inn became their new country getaway for discrete business meetings and movie star affairs. Tom Farley, who had been the General Manager of the Equinox, took over the management of the Wilburton Inn.
In 1987, Georgette and Dr. Albert Levis dined at the inn to celebrate his 50th birthday. Albert, who was a full-time psychiatrist in Hamden, Connecticut, spontaneously decided to buy it. Together they brought a joyful, creative family spirit to the inn.
Georgette was the sister of Wall Street legend Bruce Wasserstein and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Georgette inspired Madeleine Kahn’s Tony award-winning role of ‘Gorgeous’ in the Broadway hit, The Sisters Rosensweig. Georgette's playful sparkle transformed the inn to a place of Gatsby Party Dinner Dances, Murder Mystery Weekends, Oscar Parties, and glorious Destination Weddings. After 27 years as the beloved innkeeper, Georgette passed away in 2014, but her joyful spirit lives on.
Albert's life has been inspired by his childhood experience of growing up in hiding during World War II in Athens, Greece. After attending medical school in Switzerland, he came to America to finish his residence at the University of Chicago and Yale. Albert’s passion is understanding conflict resolution. He bought the Wilburton as a training center for his pioneering work to make psychology a natural science. Dr. Levis is the founder of Formal Theory and Moral Science. He authored eight books, including Science Stealing the Fire of the Gods. Albert curates the Museum of the Creative Process on the Wilburton estate and The Moral Science Project in Manchester Village. Join him for a fascinating conversation on psychology, religion, education and art.
Now Albert runs the inn with his children: Tajlei, who is writing the Broadway musical adaptation of Green Acres, Melissa, who entertained thousands of N.Y.C. kids with her band Moey’s Music Party, Oliver, who runs Earth Sky Time Farm with his wife Bonnie and bakes the delicious breads at breakfast, and Max, a Columbia University and Harvard Divinity School graduate who recently received his PhD. in Psychology. Levis grandchildren include Manhattanites Theo (18) & Noam (14), who attend the Heschel School, and Monty (14), who attends Buckley. Guv (13), Talula (11), Eden (9) and baby Elijah live in Manchester. Jetson, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is the four-legged innkeeper.
Thank you for joining us and being a part of the Wilburton’s vibrant history.
-The Levis Family & The Wilburton Inn Staff