Photos by Maxwell Tielman.
Much like the winding roads and dirt paths that lead to West Kill’s Spruceton Inn, life is full of unexpected turns, plot twists and pleasant surprises. Just ask Casey Scieszka, the proprietor of this quiet Catskill Mountain inn. If you had told this born-and-raised New Yorker a few years back that she would one day purchase, restore and maintain a midcentury motel (one that once belonged to a Schwarzenegger, no less!), you likely would have been met with a raised eyebrow and some healthy skepticism. Still, that is exactly where Casey finds herself today—three hours north of her urban roots, calling the country home and loving every second of it. Over the past year, Casey and her husband, Steven Weinberg, have taken this ambitious passion project from hopeful dream to full-scale business, transforming the defunct inn into a soothing and enlivening escape. Taking cues from the motel’s existing structure, the Spruceton Inn is an endlessly charming and delightfully unfussy retreat, both beautiful and refreshingly simple. The Spruceton Inn opens to the public this July, but we’ve got the inside scoop on Casey’s story and a sneak-peek look at the inn’s lovely accommodations! Check out the full interview, plus before and after photos, after the jump! —Max
D*S: You’re a former Brooklynite (born and raised!). What convinced you to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for life in the mountains?
Casey: A better business opportunity convinced me to leave and a surprisingly enjoyable change in lifestyle is tempting me to stay! I never thought rural America would do it for me, but living at this pace in this kind of natural beauty has shone a light on a part of me I didn’t know I had.
How did owning an inn fit into your life and career goals? Is this something that you’ve always wanted to do, or did the decision come about more organically?
Opening an inn is a wonderful combination of lots of my professional and personal interests: graphic design, interior design, travel, hosting, storytelling. I first seriously considered it when I was living in Morocco—I daydreamed constantly about renovating an old “riad” into a guest house. Ultimately, my husband Steven and I concluded that we didn’t want to be expats forever so the idea was put aside until one winter night back in NYC, I had the thought, “Man, I wish I could just do the guesthouse in America.” Which of course I could! I spent the next two-ish years developing a business plan and working at a hotel in Brooklyn while keeping an eye out for my dream location.
You came upon the Spruceton Inn a bit fortuitously—describe how you found the place and what the process of purchasing it was like.
We looked at a horse farm down the road, were charmed by the valley and kept driving and spotted this place. No “For Sale” sign, but it was everything we wanted: a farmhouse, a barn, a 10-room motel strip in a meadow. We figured out the owner’s phone number through public tax records and I took deep breath, called and asked if they ever thought about selling. Luckily the answer was “yes!”
I was also happy to hear that the place had been a hotel for many years, most interestingly as the Schwarzenegger Sunshine Valley House from 1960-2003. (Yes, that Schwarzenegger! Arnold and the previous owner are cousins.) We’ve inherited all the goodwill and fond memories local folks have about this place.
Ultimately it took a few months of negotiations, appraisals and contractor visits to settle on a deal.
This is your main gig right now—what is a typical day in your life like as an innkeeper? What has the process of restoring and renovating the inn been like?
Crazy! I’m using every corner of my brain and acquiring all kinds of knowledge in areas previously irrelevant to me: the ins and outs of plumbing and electric work, landscaping, carpentry, liquor distribution, reservation software, and, oh my gosh, the taxes and insurance. My daily to-do list is quite varied!
There are times when the sheer scope of what I’m in charge of can feel daunting, but one of the reasons I wanted to move away from freelancing was so that I could build something of my own and take all the responsibility and rewards that come with that. Though “of my own” isn’t entirely true; I’m deeply indebted to my super talented husband Steven who has helped me every step of the way while juggling his own career as an illustrator and writer. Not to mention all the friends who have come up for work weekends!
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered while returning the Spruceton Inn to its former glory?
Like any renovation, trying to do it within budget while doing right by the building’s bones for the long-term is a difficult dance. Lots of money has to go to unsexy but oh-so-necessary things like insulation and water damage prevention. In some ways the restraints of space, budget, weather and such have all made for a truly interesting design challenge! Never before has the marriage of form and function been this important to me.
Above: Photos of the renovation process, courtesy of The Spruceton Inn.
What piece of advice do you wish somebody had given you before you started work on the inn? Are there any big lessons you have learned?
I spent a LOT of time seeking out advice before diving into this from a huge range of people so I’ll tell you some of the things they said that I’ve found to be endlessly helpful: adapt to changing circumstances as you go but stay true to the heart of your initial vision, hire people you trust so you don’t feel like you need to be triple-checking everything they do, make an effort to connect with fellow local business owners, and buy more linens than you think you could ever possibly need!
This is clearly a big project and one that is certainly a labor of love! Do you have any tips for keeping your life (and your sanity!) in order while undertaking something of this scale?
Keep your to-do list manageable! Yes, technically the only thing on my to-do list has been “Open a hotel,” but if I’d started every day with that it would have felt like an insurmountable task. “Buy bathmats. Paint window trim. Finish payroll paperwork.”—that’s a much more doable day.
And take a break! You aren’t going to do your business any good running yourself ragged. Besides, you just might be surprised what productive things occur during your “downtime”—I’ve felt guilty about going to parties only to meet fabulous people with whom I’m now collaborating on all kinds of exciting things for the inn!
So much of hospitality is crafting a story and projecting a feeling for your guests. How do you want guests at the Spruceton Inn to feel?
At ease. Reconnected with simple pleasures in life like fresh air, stars, the quiet sounds of nature. We’ve had so many friends come up and visit since we moved here in December—it’s like we’re running a Bed & Bar already!—and the change in people’s demeanor from when they arrive Friday night to when they leave Sunday afternoon is nothing short of remarkable sometimes. There’s an easy-goingness that people tap into out here. A realigning of priorities. I want people to come for a weekend and leave feeling as refreshed as if they’d stayed for a whole week.
There is so much to do in the Catskills from season to season! How do you see the Spruceton Inn’s offerings changing and evolving throughout the year and over time?
Each season has its pleasures and activities. The snow sports, the hiking and swimming, the country auctions and antiquing, bonfires and lawn games. People have been coming to the Catskills to vacation for literally hundreds of years for good reason! That said, I’m excited to see what guests discover for themselves and what they wind up requesting. You do everything you can to anticipate people’s needs but a hotel is a living place that can grow as its location and guests do. That part really excites me!
Above: Each room comes equipped with a charming kitchenette and all the basics for preparing meals.
Above: The Inn’s main office doubles as a bar, coffee shop and general store, selling beverages and basic food products.
Above: The back side of the inn.
Above: A nearby creek offers a place to cool down and fish.