It takes a certain kind of personality to succeed at running a bed-and-breakfast. You have to enjoy the company of strangers and be able to evince sincere interest in their chitchat, day in and day out, no matter what mood you’re in. You also have to be well-informed and enthusiastic about the myriad sorts of tourist attractions that surround your establishment. And it really helps if you have a flair for whipping up a fabulous brunch.
Given these job requirements, it’s not difficult to see upon meeting the affable Robert Witkowski why the Inn at Kettleboro has taken off like gangbusters in just its first two months of operation. Along with his husband of two years and partner of 30, Michael Aiello, Witkowski is definitely doing something right. “We have been very pleased with the reception we’ve been getting since we’ve opened in June. We’ve been getting a lot of business that started out being booked on weekends, and now is going into during the week… It surprised me how many people found us that soon,” says the innkeeper. “So far I’ve had eight Trip Advisor reviews in the past two months, and all of them are five stars!”
A large part of the appeal of the place, of course, is the beauty of the property and the care with which Aiello and Witkowski restored it, beginning last September. Known to historians as the Solomon Van Orden House, the structure at 321 Route 208 in Gardiner was built in 1830 by Jane DeWitt and Henry Hornbeck on land that had originally been part of the Louis DuBois patent. “Then there was an update to it, probably post-Civil War, 1870: That’s when they added this Greek Revival treatment out front, and the porch over here and some of these little wings off the side,” Witkowski points out on a tour of the house for the New Paltz Times.
Solomon Van Orden, the banker who ran the county poorhouse on the site of what are now the Ulster County Fairgrounds, acquired the stately home and surrounding orchard land in 1892. Upon the death of his grandson, also named Solomon, in 1934, it was bought by a Sicilian fruit merchant named Joseph Penzato, whose daughter Sadie is a familiar name to many Times readers for her memoir Growing up Sicilian and Female. Witkowski takes up the thread of the story from when the house passed into the hands of Michael Aiello’s family:
“His grandfather had come up here from Brooklyn and bought the farm, which at that point was 200-plus acres of apple orchards, and they tried to farm it from 1950…. It was a period of drought, and he had a very hard time of it. They got a little disillusioned with it, so he ended up selling the farm and keeping just 12 acres and the house — about 1954…Michael’s Dad and Mom got married in ’55, and then they moved up here. So he and his brothers and sisters grew up in the house.”
Both Aiello and Witkowski are Hudson Valley natives, but they lived various places pursuing careers in the IT field before returning to Gardiner about 18 years ago when Michael’s parents, Rose and Anthony Aiello, “were getting on in years. We were here nearby to help them through the last years of their lives. His mother had a stroke and ended up in the nursing home up the road for about nine years, which was unfortunate because she was a bolt of energy; she was just really a dynamo,” Witkowski recalls. Anthony Aiello “moved to Woodland Pond in the last couple of years of his life. They were both 92 when they passed, four years ago.”
At that point, although they regarded the Van Orden House as “way too big for two people,” the couple decided that they would like to buy out Michael’s siblings’ interest in the inheritance and turn the place into an inn. “They gave their blessing to us; they were all in favor of us doing what we’re doing. This way the house still stays in the family. The house meant a lot to Michael; it meant a lot to me, because I was here all these past 18 years and loved the house as well.”
Taking the tour, from the impressive portico with its Ionic columns through the cozy parlors furnished with lovely antiques to the bright, sprawling kitchen at the back with its panoramic view of Mohonk, it’s easy to see why someone would want to keep such a handsome house “in the family.” And no detail has been spared in restoring it to the grandeur of times past while discreetly incorporating modern comforts like central air conditioning. Rob DuPont of Red Hook was the architect for the renovation, and John LaTorre of Kingston the general contractor. “The whole place has been refurbished,” Witkowski notes. “All the floors have been redone, all new wallpapers…”
Those floors are dark-stained oak planks, the wallpaper damasked. Oakleaf molding details in the corners of the doorframes, original front windows with true divided lights and a fireplace retrofitted to burn gas welcome visitors to the main parlor. Gorgeously reupholstered couches, settees and cushy armchairs beckon the weary traveler to sink in. And the only TV in the house is disguised as a massive wardrobe that could easily be the gateway into Narnia. A formal entry hall and grand staircase, lit by an etched-glass window, lead to four quirkily-shaped-but-comfortable bedrooms on the second floor, each with a full private bath and plenty of natural light.
But the kitchen, a 1950s-era add-on that has been completely redone, is the true showstopper, with salvaged cherrywood cabinets and a long island with a double sink and granite top. A farmhouse table seating ten is where guests can gather for a sociable breakfast: “I just do it family-style,” says Witkowski. “I put everything out on the table.” For parties who prefer a little more privacy, there’s a separate nook with a table for four. All look out on the spectacular Shawangunk view and enjoy great cross-ventilation. There’s also a flagstone patio in back, with a lawn just big enough for a small wedding ceremony.
“I do the cooking. I use as much local and organic product as I can get my hands on,” says Witkowski. He gets no-spray local strawberries from Meadow View Farm and breakfast sausage from Karl Family Farms. A typical breakfast may include “definitely fresh fruit, yogurt, granola; but then I’ll also make, like, a summer vegetable frittata; I’ll have the sausage. This morning I made fresh raspberry pancakes…fresh coffee and juices, sweet breads; I baked some zucchini breads last weekend… I can accommodate vegetarians, gluten-free, all of that. That’s one of the first questions I always ask them when they reserve a room.”
The hosts at the Inn at Kettleboro go out of their way to accommodate visitors, including picking them up and dropping them off at the New Paltz Trailways station, the Metro North station in Poughkeepsie or even Stewart Airport. “I don’t consider that out of your way; that’s just being accommodating to people that are your guests.” Aiello even went out to dinner with a carless visitor from Australia who had come to New Paltz to take a series of classes at Total Immersion Swimming.
Patrons so far have come “mostly from New York, from Brooklyn and from Manhattan. But we’ve had a variety of people,” says Witkowski. “Sadie Penzato knocked on my door — the picture on the cover of her book was taken on the front porch of this house…. And she just stayed here last weekend. She wanted to stay in her bedroom…the last time she slept in that room was when she got married, and she hadn’t been back in the house since then. And she is 83 now, I think.”
Much of the Inn’s rapidly growing popularity seems to be a matter of word-of-mouth, as its owners don’t advertise except through Bedandbreakfast.com and Air B & B. “Part of the success has to go to some of the local B & Bs that were very supportive of us. We were the new kid on the block, so when they were booked, they’d be saying, ‘Oh, you know what? Call the Inn at Kettleboro. It just opened; it’s a very nice place.’ And so that definitely brought business in to us. We both are really appreciative of that. And now it’s turning back, too: If I’m full, I will definitely refer people to some of the other ones.”
Visitors wishing to book a room at the Inn at Kettleboro can call (914) 213-2487 or visit the Inn’s Facebook page or its website at https://kettleboro.com. Mike Aiello and Robert Witkowski are waiting to extend you a gracious welcome. “We’re both very, very proud of what we did here,” says Witkowski. “When you like doing what you’re doing, and you’re passionate about it, you’re happy and it doesn’t look like work to you.”