Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Kevin and Sue Harter breathe new life into a beautiful and historic Southern Vermont inn.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID BARNUM - DAVIDBARNUMPHOTO.COM
Nestled in the verdant foothills of Southern Vermont, an idyllic and stately inn stands near the banks of the Battenkill River. After following the gentle curves of Route 313 towards West Arlington, visiting vacationers will find an enchanting covered bridge that leads to a secluded valley clearing. In the midst of a wide and open field, a timeless 18th century Vermont farmhouse is surrounded by several eye-catching outbuildings, each of which possesses its own unique aesthetic flavor. Due to the fact that the inn is the former home of celebrated American illustrator Norman Rockwell, every structure on the property is imbued with an immense amount of cultural significance.
Today, the buildings that once housed Rockwell’s home and studio during the career-defining years that he spent in Arlington have been stylishly renovated and refurbished by their new owners, Kevin and Sue Harter. Thanks to their attentive and dedicated stewardship, the charming riverside property has been upgraded into a timeless and iconic landmark of country hospitality. Featuring seven lavish and comfortable guest rooms and suites, Rockwell’s Retreat is perfectly-suited to accommodate a wide range of lodging options. Guests can book a single room for an amorous escape or restful weekend getaway, or book the whole property for an exceptional countryside gathering. No matter the occasion, visitors are certain to be awestruck by the mesmerizing beauty of the local scenery, and equally delighted by the thoughtful service that the Harters provide their guest.
When the Harters first moved to the Green Mountain State several years ago, there were several key issues that they needed to address before they could bring their vision of their dream Vermont inn into reality. “When we first acquired the property, it definitely needed some love and attention,” notes Kevin Harter. “We bought the place in 2019, and the previous owners of the inn had overseen the property for twenty years before we came here. They did some wonderful things with it. They renovated the bathrooms and the kitchen, as well as several of the guest rooms. We felt that it was time for additional updates, so we started over from scratch in terms of design and décor and built it back up.”
The Harters removed the carpeting from the downstairs floor and redid the wallpaper in many of the suites. They also reoriented the flow of the first floor to turn all but one of the rooms into shared common areas where their guests could congregate. In addition, they cleared out all of the old furniture and replaced it with items from their own collection. They then purchased a series of gorgeous and distinctive antique pieces from locally-based secondhand shops (such as Perfectpiece in Manchester). Several notable furniture and décor highlights can be found in their elegant and inviting “tavern” area, which features a striking table made out of a repurposed fire bellows, and gorgeous lighting fixtures from Authentic Designs in Rupert.
By integrating tastefully-selected vintage decorative accents with state-of-the-art amenities, the Harters have managed to create a lodging experience that is equal parts rustic and modern. One might expect an inn that bears the namesake of one of America’s most celebrated artists to be overcrowded with excessive memorabilia and historical artifacts, but the Harters made the deliberate decision to avoid the temptation of turning the property into a destination museum.
“We wanted to preserve the historical legacy and ambience that makes this place so special without making it all about Rockwell,” says Kevin Harter. “It’s incredibly important to honor the artistic impact of Rockwell’s years in Arlington, and it’s also crucial to ensure that our guests are able to savor the natural beauty and serenity of Vermont in their own way. We want our inn to be enjoyable for everyone who comes to visit, and also appeal to a wide range of stylistic and cultural preferences.”
In line with that philosophy, every Rockwell print and photograph that lines the walls of the inn’s multiple buildings is deliberately selected to enhance the ambience and atmosphere, and each suite is designed in a manner that deftly blends countrified nostalgia with modern elegance. Walking through the front entrance of the main farmhouse building, an exercise room with brand-new Peloton bikes and yoga mats lies just off of the foyer. Further down the entrance hall, Vermont-made farm-fresh maple syrups and artisan soaps are proudly displayed next to copies of Buddy Edgerton’s book, The Unknown Rockwell. Edgerton and his siblings frequently modeled for Rockwell during the time that he spent in Southern Vermont, and the Edgerton and Rockwell families became inextricably linked over those years. Kevin Harter recalls that he first connected with Buddy Edgerton when he came to visit the inn during the earliest stages of its recent transformation.
“I was up in the small studio’s crawl space draining the pipes when I heard a car pull up outside. I went down to see who it was and a man introduced himself to me as Buddy Edgerton. He was there with his son Jim. He was somewhat taken aback when I didn’t immediately recognize his name, given his extraordinarily close relationship with the Rockwell family. We started talking about the memories that he had from the time that Rockwell spent in Arlington, and he revealed that both he and Jim had served as models for Rockwell’s works on multiple occasions. We ended up subsequently forming a wonderful connection of our own. He’s been incredibly welcoming since we first came here. It’s been great to see how supportive and receptive the local community has been – especially those who have a special connection to Rockwell.”
The Harters have also built a friendship with Norman Rockwell’s son, Jarvis, who shared a revealing anecdote about the original function of one of the inn’s newly-renovated rooms.
“When I first showed Jarvis around the inn after the majority of our renovations were complete, he said that he truly loved what we had done with the place. Still, his sense of humor came through when he took a look at a little half-bathroom that we had installed next to the stairs on the first floor. He chuckled when he told me, ‘That room used to be a closet! My dad kept a phonograph and some records on the floor in there, but I didn’t ever hear him play any of them.’”
The first floor of the main farm house is also home to the Bridge View Room, which provides unparalleled views of the West Arlington covered bridge. With exposed beams and hardwood floors, guests can relax, unwind and acclimate in the comfort of a king-size cherry wood bed or one of two suede chairs. The suite also features a private entrance, and a combination jacuzzi/shower in the bathroom.
Upstairs on the second floor, guests will find several additional suites, including the namesake Norman Rockwell Room. This sumptuous suite boasts a king-size sleigh bed, a working fireplace, and two gorgeous navy-blue sitting chairs with studded white trim that perfectly compliment the retro-chic floral wallpaper. Those who wish to revel in the pastoral beauty of the surrounding valley will adore the Farm View Room. Down the hall, the aptly named River View Room allows guests to take in the soothing sights of the legendary Battenkill River while reclining in a gorgeous dark-toned wooden sleigh bed or opulent velvet armchair. Guests in search of a whimsical and memorable romantic refuge will enjoy pleasurable nights of reflective resplendence in the Mountain View Room, which overlooks the two additional studios in the field behind the main farmhouse. The Mountain View room also offers stunning panoramic vistas of nearby Big Spruce Mountain. The angular structure of the room creates a cozy and welcoming feel, which is further enhanced by the two-sided fireplace that stands between the bedroom and the spacious bathroom.
Directly behind the main farmhouse building, the Half-Pint Studio suite stands in the middle of the surrounding field. This stylish suite is located in the building that once housed the studio that Norman Rockwell built for his son, Jarvis, who is also a very talented and well-regarded artist. Inside, a short wood-paneled entranceway leads into a spacious room with a high cathedral ceiling and exposed posts and beams. Decorative accents such as hand-woven snowshoes, a hanging chandelier, cowhide pattern pillows, leather chairs, and checker pattern curtains create a stylistic impression of a cultured, yet rural ski-cabin. The suite also features a queen-sized bed, wood stove, and large walk-in shower.
“When we first bought the property, the Half-Pint Studio was set up in an entirely different way,” says Kevin Harter. “There was brown shag carpeting on the floors and a spiral staircase that led to a bed on a high platform. We really redid the whole space to give it more of a warm and classic ambience.”
Further behind the Half-Pint Studio suite lies the iconic Norman Rockwell Studio. In the same place where local residents once came to model for Norman Rockwell’s celebrated illustrations, a massive chandelier hangs over a majestic leather couch in the middle of the studio, and the walls are decked out with several photographs of Rockwell in his artistic prime. According to Kevin Harter, the process for redecorating the Norman Rockwell Studio took time, effort, and dedication. “We wanted to put the studio back together as best as we could, and we wanted to make it look just like it was when he was here. We looked at old photos as references, and also consulted with Rockwell’s former models. Our conversations with his former models helped give us a deeper understanding of what we needed to do to put it back together.”
Kevin says that several of the artifacts that are scattered throughout the studio carry special significance, such as a deer head that was supplied by Buddy Edgerton. “Buddy came to the studio when I was in the process of restoring it and looked up at an empty patch of wall. He told me, ‘There used to be a deer head there that my mom shot. Norman loved my mom so much that he put the deer up there in the studio for everyone to see.’ After he told me that story, he offered to provide another deer head bust for decorative purposes. The only difference was, the deer wasn’t shot by his mother – it was shot by his father. I couldn’t have gotten any luckier in terms of how close to the original artifact I got with that piece! It’s also an amazing way to honor the friendship between the
Edgerton and Rockwell families.”
In addition to the deer head on the wall, several notable artifacts in the studio can be attributed to another famous Vermont- based artist by the name of Arthur Jones, who was a longtime member of the nearby Southern Vermont Arts Center.
“Arthur Jones did a very famous series of flag paintings, many of which were acquired by prominent collectors and dignitaries across the country,” Kevin Harter explains. “While we were putting the studio back together, the estate of Arthur Jones approached us. They said that Arthur would have been incredibly happy to have one of his paintings hanging in Norman’s restored studio. After they contacted us, we ended up hanging one of Jones’ paintings here in the studio and displaying it prominently. Arthur had only recently passed away when his estate contacted me, so I thought that it would be a beautiful way to honor the legacy of two artists who created some of their most significant work here in Southern Vermont. I consider it almost to be a posthumous artistic collaboration of sorts.”
Kevin and Sue Harter are also firm believers in the importance of respectful stewardship – both in regards to the way that they operate their business, and the way that they have built connections with the surrounding community. “It’s important to understand that when you take on ownership of a property, such as the one here at Rockwell’s Retreat, it carries a lot of significance in the hearts and minds of the local townspeople,” notes Kevin Harter. “We want them to feel like they are welcome, and we want our guests to feel like they are welcome here, as well. The better connected we are with our local community, the more authentic and powerful of an experience we can provide for our guests. The breakfasts that I cook in the morning are made with eggs I purchase down the road from a local farm. The ice cream in our freezer is from The Chocolate Barn, which is a beloved Shaftsbury, Vermont-based business. Local businesses really support each other in incredible ways here in Vermont, and we’ve been fortunate enough to make some strong and lasting connections, both with local residents and with local business owners.”
Sue Harter adds that the most important thing that she has learned over the course of her and Kevin’s new hospitality venture is the value of empathy and customer connection. “My favorite thing about running a business like this is that I get to help people relax, unwind, and detach from the stresses of modern life. I had a life-changing experience the first time I came to Southern Vermont, and I want all of our guests to experience that same kind of peace and relaxation. That’s why all of the small decisions that we make as innkeepers really add up on a daily basis. We don’t charge guests for our ice cream. We don’t want them to have to worry about that! We encourage people to enjoy themselves and leave all of their cares behind. I take personal pride in every smile I see on the face of every guest who walks out of our doors. We want to create memories that are every bit as unforgettable as Norman Rockwell’s art, and every bit as long-lasting as the impact that he left on the Southern Vermont community.”