History and hospitality are gracious companions.
Wealthy business owners just before the turn of the previous century found the North Country in New Hampshire to be a perfect spot for building their summer retreats. One beautiful example in North Conway is the Stonehurst Manor, now open to the public as an inn with breakfast and dinner service. Tucked up high, off of Rte. 16, the inn offers a glimpse into the past and views beyond to the mountains.
In 1872 Erastus Bigelow, of carpeting fame, built his summer opus, Stonehurst, on 600 acres he had purchased in various parcels a few years earlier. Bigelow was successful as an inventor of power looms, especially for carpets, and his mills enlived the town of Clinton in Massachusetts in the industrial age. One of the first "flatlanders," he had first visited the area in 1865 and liked what he found.
Unfortunately, the house burned down several years later in 1875. Not to be defeated, Bigelow rebuilt the structure faithfully from the original plan, including the steep-pitched roofs, a variety of dormers and scalloped eaves. Erastus and his wife Eliza moved into the new house in 1877.
As seems to be the case with productive men who take little personal time, Erastus only enjoyed his summer residence for a few years. Upon his death his only daughter, Helen Bigelow Merriman, inherited the entire property. Later, In 1895, she orchestrated a complete renovation in what she called the English manor style. The house was enlarged and sheathed with dark shingles and a mortared fieldstone fireplace. English oak woodwork, complete with a huge hand-carved fireplace mantel, beamed ceilings and built-in bookcases completed the look inside. This is the Stonehurst Manor as it survives today. Most of the architectural detail is original including what could be Tiffany leaded glass. The stunning views of the Presidential Peaks remain, too.
Helen, an artist, writer and philanthropist, was active in North Conway society, founding the Memorial Hospital in her parents memory. Upon her death in 1933 the property remained vacant for eleven years.
In the 1940s the residence became a lodging facility and since 1978, has been owned by Peter Rattay and his wife Laurel.
Rattay also was a seasonal visitor when he first stumbled upon the Manor. He had been managing for Sheridan Hotels and was ready to run his own property. In the years since, hospitality styles have changed, but the integrity and the sense of grandeur of the Bigelow-Merriman vision continues to run true.
All the original furnishings were sold at auction, but a few pieces have found their way home. The iron work in the huge fireplace and a decorative desk in front are a few items returned by old-timers who had attended the estate auction.
Rattay always offered a fine dining experience at the Manor - embracing the elegance imbued in the structure. But in the late 1980s dining styles changed, says Rattay. "People were no longer willing to sit down for a three hour dinner. I had people tell me they loved the inn, but after a busy day on the slopes or traveling, just wanted to get to bed." One fellow even told him "after 50 years of marriage I have nothing left to say to my wife." About the same time Rattay heard about a fellow in Vermont who was making wood-fired pizzas a hot commodity.
After making the visit to Vermont, Rattay built his own bee-hive oven with Vermont clay and added a soapstone floor. Stonehurst Manor became the first in the valley to offer wood-fired pizzas. Now, as he says, "Where else could you have a great pizza and Dom Perignon?" Pizza and fine dining co-exist on the menu daily. Rattay's original muse was George Schenk, owner of the American Flatbread Company and previous owner of the Flatbread Company, now with a location in North Conway.
Other Rattay firsts included offering dining specials on Thursday evening - currently any two entrées on the menu for $25. He continues to offer lodging specials that include a two-course dinner in shoulder seasons to help spread the word. "Once people come up here they most assuredly come back," he says.
Recently, Rattay has gone back to menu classics - entrées like Steak Diane, Beef Wellington and Veal Oscar strike a familiar chord and as he says, "People order what they know." Rattay is especially proud of his prime rib that is slow-cooked at low temperatures for 18 to 24 hours. Chef James Davis has command of his menu and offers flavorful takes on the classics and more inventive specials. The bread basket is not to be missed. A recent selection included hearty ryes and a cornbread studded with cranberry and fennel seed. The Caesar salad was one of the best we have enjoyed. Dessert include rich cakes and more interesting, a pizza for two or four with caramel, apple slices and marscapone cheese for additional ooze.
After three decades in the business Rattay does not seem to tire of the challenges and opportunities. Come summer the pool area and veranda open along with a new area with seating near the bee-hive ovens. Rattay enjoys gardening and in summer the grounds make a beautiful site for weddings with a mountain backdrop.
Rattay also gardens at his Jackson home and brings in basil, fingerling potatoes and tomatoes for the Stonehurst kitchen. In addition, he purchases produce in season from the Earle Family Farm in Center Conway and grass-fed Angus beef from Peppermint Fields in Fryeburg, Maine. "We usually purchase a side of beef and create specials from all the cuts," he explains.
Tradition is part of the experience at Stonehurst Manor, and Mr. Bigelow the fourth is the most endearing. Mr. Bigelow, a white cat, is the fourth to take up residence at the inn. After a year of being cat-less, this cat just appeared one day. Seems an anonymous guest had just dropped him off and disappeared. He called later to say, "I can't care for him anymore and oh, he eats a lot." You may find Mr. Bigelow lounging on his back displaying his rotund belly near the check-in desk. Sure, bring him a treat, he does love to eat. Nearby will be Peter Rattay, plucking white fur off the solid green carpet. As Rattay says, "Mr. Bigelow is part of the inn, part of the history and part of the comforts of home we want people to enjoy while staying here."
The Stonehurst Manor is a bit of the past preserved - one can still feel the opulence of a different era as you enjoy a pre-dinner drink in the English oak-paneled library lounge. This was life in a shingle-style "cottage" in the late-Victorian years. Enjoy history. NH
This article appears in the May 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine