Less than 150 miles north of New York City, gently nestled in a sloping valley amidst the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, lies a newly reborn nine room inn. Twice a family home and now thrice a country getaway, Casey Scieszka left her native Brooklyn to rebuild the single story structure into a clean, minimalist escape that somehow manages to be as inviting and calming as its surrounding grounds.
“I like the idea that you can come up here with a bunch of plans for the weekend and then suddenly it’s Sunday afternoon and you realize you never really left the property,” she says. This isn’t difficult to imagine. With eight acres of terrain, two sides of which are enclosed by preserved state land, you can easily get lost wandering through the tall grass, sunning by the pond, swimming in the creek, or simply lazing in a hammock beneath one of the weeping trees. And if lackadaisical is not your cup of country adventure, there’s also plenty of “capital H hikes” two miles past the inn, complete with waterfalls and panoramic views.
As magical and bucolic as the surroundings are, living in rural America hasn’t always been a part of Casey’s original plan. While abroad in Morocco with her then-boyfriend-now-husband Steven Weinberg, Casey daydreamed of renovating an old riad into a guesthouse, a project that would envelop all of her natural interests: design, travel, hosting, memory-making. By that time, she and Steven had already spent several years living as ex-pats and weren’t interested in doing it forever. Then, one wintry night back in Brooklyn 2012, Casey realized she could build a guesthouse here in the states. “They have hotels in the U.S. too, right?” she says with a laugh.
After four years of working as a freelance writer and graphic designer, Casey was ready to put aside the piecemeal work and start building something substantial she could call her own. Over the course of two and a half years, Casey has fully transformed her life from something recognizable to most of us — youthful city living, partially satisfying work, cramped apartment — into a whirlwind of first times, giant steps, and uncharted adventures in business and the wilderness alike.
WORDS BY MIA SAKAI | PHOTOS BY TIM HANNIFAN
What were your first three steps towards building Spruceton?
The first was to get a notebook and write down what this would look like. I designed my dream hotel just to see what I was working with. Sometimes you realize you have a ridiculously vague idea and need to answer a lot of questions more particularly before you can even figure out how to move on or how to pursue it.
I’d never worked in hospitality and wanted to know if going to hospitality school would be worth it. I reached out to people with places similar to what I wanted and asked how they started. Most came from various artistic backgrounds and said they just kind of jumped in without having any formal education.
Although a lot of people I spoke to didn’t have prior hospitality experience, all of them did have their own fabulous businesses. They were established, trusted business people and that’s something I wasn’t as a twenty-something freelancer. I decided to suck it up and get a bottom of the totem pole job at a hotel in Brooklyn.
You made a lot of big life changes: traded the city bustle for country calm, opened a hotel, adopted a dog named Waldo. How did you work up the nerve to make such big leaps?
It’s very hard when you’re in New York — everyone’s moving, everyone’s ambitious. It’s exciting and you can feed off that but it can also drive you into the ground. I took a long look at what I would be doing in five years and it wasn’t much different than what I had been doing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I was ready to build something of my own. Having a partner in crime is also great. A lot of people mistake this as a joint venture between the two of us, but Steven had no initial interest or stake in opening a hotel. Historically he is very much an outdoor person and was more comfortable with the idea of moving to the country than I was. I never thought I would like living in rural America but I love it!
Starting your own business is not without its fears, worries or concerns. What were yours going into this and how did you work through them?
Lots of beer late at night! No really, going out with friends and talking to them was immensely helpful. I also took a lot of Brooklyn business owners out to coffee or happy hour and asked them very specific questions about worries I had. If you look at the whole thing, at the project of wanting to open a hotel, it’s so big and vague that you have to break it down. So I would identify one nagging worry and then figure out a concrete way to fix it. Like, today I’ll learn about hotel law, tomorrow I’ll learn about linens. You have to really isolate the problem, analyze it, then conquer them one at a time. There’s always going to be a low hum of anxiety because it’s a big choice and a big life change, but that’s also the buzz of your excitement. As long as those are in balance, it feels good.
You wrote a few different business plans. Was that helpful and have you stuck to your final version?
I called all my friends who went to business school and told them “I’m gonna learn from your expensive education!” I asked which course books were the most helpful and bought a couple on writing business plans and developing businesses. My friend said the one thing all her professors told her was that you will make a business plan and you will throw it out. Ultimately writing one was very helpful because it pointed to holes in things I hadn’t thought of before. You have to explain everything so it’s clear enough for a kindergartner. Once it’s clear on that level, it’s clear to you. So while I’m not using those exact projection charts right now, it still helped me answer questions I had and gave me a foundation for how to adjust for things in the future.
Let’s talk about what it takes to fund something of this scale. Did you have to find investors or take out a business loan?
Since purchasing property was involved I wasn’t able to use traditional investors so I wound up using loans and savings. At first I thought I would be pitching my parents’ friends, but I was able to get one lump sum loan that I used for buying the property, developing the business and whatever else was needed. Originally I thought about opening in Brooklyn but the money that I could access would go so much further out here which was immensely appealing. Opening a business takes a staggering amount of money. I think about my personal budget and the fact that I never bought much more than like a $1000 plane ticket. And now the contractors will tell me we need new wall heating cooling units and it’ll cost “34.” I’m like, 34… hundred dollars? 34 thousand dollars? How many zeros are we talking about?! That kind of money just wasn’t in my vocabulary before.
How did your budget end up breaking down?
The vast majority went into buying this place, which cost $370,000. We put well less — well less — than that into renovating. I realized I could do the decor on a tight budget and still be very pleased with it, but if I was going to plan for the long term I would need to get the bones back in order. I was very willing to spend more money on say, the floor that I wouldn’t have to touch for 50 years or on replacing the heating with a more cost effective system. Luckily, it also so happens those things come before the decorating. Although the decor is inherent to the heart of the business and what your guests are experiencing, it’s easier to squeeze from that than from the structural foundation. You don’t want to take shortcuts that will create headaches for yourself in the long run.
What was your inspiration for the decor, aesthetic and feel of Spruceton?
I kept the decor simple and pared down because I wanted the field and mountain views to be the star. So it’s just a comfy bed, a big round light that’s reminiscent of a full moon, maps where you can plan hikes, Steven’s beautiful paintings of the nature surrounding us, and old photos from when this was the Schwarzenegger’s Sunshine Valley House. The idea behind the whole place is about returning to simple pleasures: having a cheap beer in the sun, reminding yourself that there are stars, bringing things back down to the basics. A fussy room just wouldn’t feel like that.
THE SPRUCETON INN TIMELINE
Do you ever have “oh shit” moments where you look around and think, “What have I gotten myself into?”
All the time! I was worried I’d have that moment of oh shit I regret doing this. But I haven’t even come close to that. It’s more like, oh shit this aspect is so much harder than I thought it would be, or oh shit I hate this part, or oh shit I’m so overwhelmed. Yes, I have all of those moments but I’m still so excited about the positive aspects of opening the Inn. It’s a balance. You know how you never want to trash talk your significant other to friends? Because then they’re kind of like man, your stuff is falling apart. I think business owners feel a similar pressure to keep up appearances. You don’t want your business to look like it might be floundering when in reality you’re just really overwhelmed and there’s a lot going on.
What’s been your biggest adjustment, personally and professionally, since moving to West Kill and opening the Inn?
It’s hard to not let your business overtake your life; inevitably it will if you allow it. I have to make a conscious effort to take weekends or, at the very least a day off, when I’m not allowed to do anything hotel-related. There’s always something to be done and the tasks are so varied it’s insane. I’ve become an interior designer, an amateur electrician, an accountant, a landscaper. The sheer scope of stuff that I’m in charge of can be really overwhelming and sometimes wakes me up at night. But on the other hand, I wanted to have something that was mine alone. You have to swallow that whole pill — both the headaches and the rewards. That’s been the big challenge. And then just not letting it bleed so much into my personal life that I’m too stressed to enjoy such a beautiful place.
What do you see for yourself and Spruceton in the future?
I chose a place I think will be beautiful for the long foreseeable future. We redid the bones of the building so they could last a hundred years. As far as the next five go — like what the rooms will look like or pivoting to meet our clients’ needs — I’m very open to how we might change. I like the idea that this is a place that can grow and develop with our clientele, and really, with us. What’s most exciting for me is that I don’t know what the next step is. I’m uncomfortable looking down the barrel of the gun at the same thing forever. It scares me and doesn’t excite me. Spruceton has re-opened my options in a new and thrilling way. Maybe the next step will be a second location in say, Nashville or Mexico. Or maybe I do a whole other business. Who knows? Having those options is what’s really exciting.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
It’s totally okay to be an amateur! Ask questions because not asking questions will get you nowhere. I told the plumbers and electricians to explain things to me like I’m ten. I said, “Walk me through this so I can really learn it and know it and then make better decisions.” No one likes an empty, cocky bastard who talks a big game about things they know nothing about. That’s just bad news all around. But people really appreciate a humble, inquisitive person. You have to be okay with asking simple questions and still feel confident enough to know you can be a good business person. You’ll only be undermining yourself if you don’t ask those questions.
Meyer, Danny. Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Goldman, Seth and Barry Nalebuff. Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently– And Succeeding. New York: Random House, 2013.
More on Casey
Davis, Lisa Selin. “Plan B: Open a Country Hotel in Upstate New York.” The New York Times. May 23, 2014.
Tielman, Maxwell. “A Laid-Back Catskill Retreat Gets New Owners and a New Life.” www.designsponge.com. June 26, 2014.
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