Celebrating a Time Gone By

The Rivertown Inn reflects Victorian-era beauty and charm.

Sometimes, the best things that happen in life are unplanned. That’s what happened when Julie and Jeff Anderson were at a local movie theater and a realtor’s ad flashed across the screen: “The Rivertown Inn For Sale.” The couple looked at each other and their collective wheels started turning. Having just completed a major renovation of their own late 19th-century home in Stillwater, the last thing they were looking for was another real estate project.

“Jeff and I are not really planners,” Julie Anderson says. “We have a passion for old homes, the Stillwater area and antiques. My mom had taken our three little boys for the night, so we went for a walk and said, ‘What do you think?’ You’ve heard the old adage, ‘You jump off a cliff and grow your wings on the way down’? That was us.”

The inn was originally built in 1884 as a family home for John and Anna O’Brien and their six children. The house was unique in many ways. As the first Queen Anne-style home in Stillwater, it drew quite a bit of attention. Furthermore, the family’s use of acetylene to power their home was considered ahead of their time. “They were very modern people,” says Larry Loyer, operations manager for the inn. “When they purchased bicycles, it was big news in the local press. Not only were they purchased for the men of the family, but the women as well. [It was considered] quite feminist for the times.”

Following the departure of the O’Briens, the home weathered a century of additions and renovations, morphing from a private residence into apartments, then a crisis center for juveniles, and eventually reopening in 1982 as Stillwater’s first bed and breakfast (B&B).

When the Andersons first visited the inn, Julie recalls seeing a big house with potential and charm, yet freely admits they did not understand what they were about to discover. “Most people think of fluffing the pillows, arranging the flowers, inviting people into your pretty home. And then it got real, and we realized what we needed to do to have it feel like the B&B we envisioned,” she says.

On October 1, 1999, they signed the purchase agreement with the intention of working on renovations as they went along. But it became apparent that certain details needed immediate attention. “We realized quickly what a big operation it was,” Julie says. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who run inns. I had the luxury of going home at night. Most innkeepers don’t. I didn’t realize we would need to have someone living on site.”

That person was Loyer, a longtime friend of the Andersons who believes everything in his life led up to his work at the inn. “I was a deckhand oiler and wiper and a trained helmsman. Everything had to be in ship-shape,” Loyer says.

Once management was in place to handle the day-to-day operations, Julie Anderson could explore design themes for the guestroom renovation. While brainstorming with friends, designer Ed Hawksford, now of Hawksford Design in Bayport, was recommended for the project. “He is an amazing guy with a wealth of knowledge,” Julie says. “He was the one who came up with the idea of [incorporating the names of] poets and literary figures from the time period the house was built.”

Christie, Wilde and Tennyson

Hawksford didn’t hesitate in naming the first room. “My grandmother was a poetry fanatic, and Tennyson was her favorite,” he says. Writers such as Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen served as inspiration for the remaining eight guest suites.

The furniture and accessories for the guestrooms were acquired piece by piece, with the Andersons frequenting auctions from St. Paul to Atlanta. “The beautiful thing about furnishing the inn is, yes, some of the pieces are lavish and large. But they can sometimes be purchased for so much less than you think [because] they are over-scaled for most homes,” Julie says.

The Agatha Christie suite presented unique challenges for Hawksford and the Andersons. “I was trying to come up with an inspiration for an author and realized the room looked like a train car,” Hawksford says. “And it was like boom, that’s it! Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, and the drawings which had taken me three weeks were done in three hours,” Hawksford says. A Belgian train station bed now takes center stage in the room.

After seeing photos of the Agatha Christie suite online, Nick and Rachel Kerzman of Minnetonka wanted to book a stay in the room. “We love the layout. It’s like you’re in a train car,” Nick Kerzman says.

While the Kerzmans make the sojourn to Stillwater at least once a year, this year’s recent visit was their first time staying at a B&B—and a first time out since becoming new parents. “We have always enjoyed trying out new places, new getaways,” Rachel Kerzman says. “The lights and music were on when we arrived. It had so much character and charm. We’re already looking forward to our next visit!”

Their favorite things

Julie and Jeff Anderson each have their favorite areas in the inn. While Jeff appreciates the stained glass windows and woodcarvings, Julie enjoys aspects of each guestroom, particularly the Agatha Christie and Jane Austen suites. “Jeff’s more macro, while I’m the micro. I love the small details,” she says. “We’ve learned over the years that it’s a really effective way to work together.”

Their attention to details, both large and small, has paid off. “The public spaces evoke the feel of a well-traveled Victorian and create a more European approach to 19th-century décor,” Hawksford says. Pieces from the Andersons’ own home, as well as items acquired during Jeff’s travels (he is an attorney) are integrated throughout the Inn. During one trip to Portland, Ore., Jeff spotted part of a religious carving. It soon found its way back to the Midwest on an onion truck and is now featured prominently in one of the inn’s two dining rooms [see photo above].

While remodeling the kitchen, Hawksford and Julie collaborated with English chef Ray Wyatt. They made several changes, such as converting the original butler’s pantry into a wine room. The original kitchen serves as prep area and transition space, as well as an area to host cooking classes and demonstrations. “Turn-of-the-century kitchens were very simple. Ours had to be a commercial kitchen, but we didn’t want it to feel commercial, so we used a copper hood, Cambria products and pressed ceilings that recreated [the look of] a tin ceiling,” Hawksford says.

“Jeff and I couldn’t have done this on our own,” Julie says. “It’s a beautiful old home that we want to open up for writers conferences and corporate retreats. It’s a unique place to go off-site for your book club or bridal shower. We offer a complete, customized approach to whatever you need.”

A Victorian holiday

When decorating the inn for the holidays, the Andersons put their trust in Loyer. Some years the inn has been adorned in extravagant lights and garland, other times, decorations have been minimal.

“Larry is so incredibly creative,” Julie says. “Every year he is inspired by something different.”

Julie believes the holidays are a wonderful time to visit Stillwater. Those who visit the inn during the season will see the Andersons’ appreciation for the meaning of the holidays, with a focus on tradition.

“I think we are toning the inn down, just based on where we are personally,” she says. “You come in and it’s calm and relaxing—a space to breathe that is close to home.”

Julie praises their staff in making the inn the kind of place that she and her husband envisioned and they would want to visit themselves.

“Our housekeeper, Sandy, is one of our greatest assets,” she says. “The food is always good, and Larry takes care of every single detail [and] knows we have a level of quality and concern for our guests. We are so grateful.”

(Larry Loyer, operations manager at The Rivertown Inn, in front of a religious carving procured in Portland, Ore. by owner Jeff Anderson.)