BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. - Before the era of the McMansion, there were homes like the one built by William A. Hall.
As an inventor and business owner, Hall amassed a fortune, which he used in part to construct a trophy property in this small village on the Vermont-New Hampshire line. Bellows Falls was a hotbed of manufacturing in the 1800s, and Hall, who created and sold paints and adhesives, is among numerous factory bosses whose handsome houses still stand.
His was a beauty. A three-story Colonial Revival dating to 1892, it has 22 rooms, eight fireplaces, two porches, twin his-and-hers parlors, servant quarters, and a rooftop widow's walk. It is breathtaking from the moment guests step into its "great hall," where an oval atrium soars to a third-floor skylight and a Palladian window embedded with Austrian crystal graces a far wall.
Over time, of course, high-maintenance old houses such as this one fall into disrepair. That's where Dorothy and Stewart Read come into the picture. They bought the house in 1997 and spent the next five years immersed in renovations. A brochure about the Bellow Falls Neighborhood Historic District credits the Reads with accomplishing a "museum-quality restoration," which sounds like hyperbole - until you see the work they have done.
Elaborate wallpaper decorated with vines, leaves, spider webs, and dragonflies. Paper butterflies speckling the ceilings. Beautiful quilts draped over staircase railings. Triple-bay curved glass windows. Fireplace hearths made of marble and Italian tile.
The Reads then turned the house into a five-guest-room inn called the Readmore Bed, Breakfast, & Books. With that in mind, they have made the whole house an informal book shop, with each room containing books for sale according to theme. Save for a few family children's books and an Agatha Christie collection, everything is up for grabs.
And perched atop the roof is a human-sized gargoyle named Gus reading Grimm's fairy tales. As the inn's website explains, "He protects the house from evil spirits, or at least from illiteracy!"
Like many innkeeping couples, the Reads, who live in private quarters on the third floor, complement each other. Dorothy is the chattier, with an easy manner and knack for casual conversation. Stewart is quiet, often gliding wordlessly through the house to deliver a hot drink or add a log to a fire.
Our favorite aspect of their house is the freedom guests have to roam and sprawl. At many B&Bs, there's one only common room that all guests must share. At the Readmore, opportunities for solitude abound. I prefer the dark, cozy, fireplaced downstairs library, with its aggressively masculine feel. But I could just as happily curl up in the "women's parlor," a frilly room with baby grand piano, pastel colors, floral furniture, and ceiling mural of a pretty blue sky.
Or I could head to the snug game room, stocked with fortune telling cards, marbles, cribbage boards, and elaborate puzzles. Or I could retreat to our spacious bedroom, the TR Room, whose hunting theme pays tribute to Theodore Roosevelt. Its comforts are hotel-quality: queen-size canopy feather bed, fireplace, down comforter, CD player, dressing room, whirlpool tub, comfy robes. "We love to pamper people," Dorothy says.
In every way, the Readmore is a classy operation. Each morning, nearly a half-dozen local and national newspapers are delivered. Each evening, our shades were drawn and chocolates were placed on our pillows. During the day, a tempting chocolate buttercream cake, courtesy of Dorothy, was available for snacking.
And breakfast was truly gourmet. One morning, we had pink grapefruit broiled with honey and fennel, buckwheat blueberry pancakes with rum whipped cream, and Yukon gold home fries seasoned with rosemary and smoked paprika. On another, the selection included grilled pineapple topped with kiwi and ginger cream, Greek yogurt sweetened with honey, whole grain French toast stuffed with apple pie filling and extra-sharp Vermont cheddar cheese, and tri-colored heirloom potatoes sauteed with French herbs.
Guests share a breakfast table, so if you end up seated near overly chatty types, focus on the food until you can return to the peace and privacy of the rest of this gorgeous, sprawling house.
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.