Travel down any number of country roads throughout the Catskills and one can discover architecture that exemplifies what life was like during the heyday, when the region was known as a playground for those seeking respite from the workaday world of city life. Boarding houses, hotels, bungalows and inns were scattered across Sullivan County, and among them, The Old North Branch Inn stood proud. Built in 1868, the inn was only one of a number of hotels in the area, and North Branch was a destination, nestled in the hills, welcoming guests who traveled by rail to Callicoon, NY to spend a few days or an entire season relaxing by the pool fed by natural water flow, or simply sitting on the veranda, watching the world go by. Since many similar establishments popped up along the way, each had its own unique flavor that made it stand out in a variety of ways, and this little inn was no exception. Boasting a two-lane bowling alley and four intimate rooms on the second floor, the inn was a popular stop for those who desired vacationing on an intimate scale. With the advent of the automobile, followed by the lowered cost of air travel, travelers began to expand their horizons, setting their sights on seeing the USA or more exotic locales across the world, and “Grande Dames” like the inn fell out of favor.
While this charming Victorian jewel changed hands over the years, it did remain open to the public for a great deal of the time, eventually becoming a private residence and falling into disrepair, until designer Victoria Lesser stumbled across the place while searching for a new project to fuel her creative energy. Lesser’s website (www.victorialesser.com ) reflects the sentiment shared by those who know her best as a creative dynamo who never stops. No stranger to the press, Lesser has also been described as the “designer to the stars,” having created original fashion for Bill Cosby, the Bee Gees, Barbara Mandrell and Aerosmith, but interior design and architectural restoration are a passion that has fueled her soul for decades, whether it’s a loft in Key West, or creating stunning vacation getaways for DIY television network’s popular “Blog Cabin,” which features top-to-bottom renovations, or new construction from the ground up.
Lesser’s extensive research into the history of the inn, coupled with her design expertise, inspired what she describes as “an eclectic mix” that preserves the original motif, while updating and repurposing space for a new generation. Meticulous to a fault, Victoria is passionate about her work and finds herself “rarely satisfied” to rest, moving from one project to another, in an effort to make all things beautiful. A peek at Lesser’s online diary (www.designgrl.blogspot.com ) allows one inside the creative process. “Woke up in the morning thinking about color and how inspired I am by the palette Mother Nature provides,” it reads. “When I choose colors for inside or out,” it continues, “I take into account what colors will be missed most after all the leaves have fallen and we are left with winter’s mark.” It’s that fascination with the change of seasons that led Lesser to stray from Florida and expand her design horizons in this neck of the woods. One renovation led to another and eventually led to her scoping out the inn, which had gone into foreclosure and “was a wreck.” Most folks would have instantly passed on what had become an eyesore, but Lesser has the ability to look beyond the surface and “see the bones of what lies underneath.” Undaunted by the task before her, she toured the grounds and structure and “instantly fell in love” with the place, ignoring her friends and family, who advised her to walk away. “I knew what was there,” she claimed, “after pulling at some old carpeting and searching below the layers, the old bowling alley resurfaced and excitement set in.”
Lesser’s desire to update, while preserving the inn’s historical integrity was paramount to the project, and she knew that a bed and breakfast was the “only way to go.” What was not part of the plan, however, was taking up residence herself. “I had no plans to actually live here,” she said, “but I was informed that I had to, in order to run the B&B. That changed everything. I looked at the place anew, figuring out what part of the inn would become my apartment. Once I realized that I could design my living quarters, replete with 20-foot ceilings and a dream kitchen that embraces the country style, I was hooked.” Hiring local contractors and slipping into work boots, Lesser dug in, doing much of the work herself. Ripping into lath and plaster and exposing the original bead-board were all part of a day’s work, as Victoria labored tirelessly alongside the hired help. “Each day brought a new discovery, as well as a new challenge,” she recalled, “but it never occurred to me to give up. I was like a dog on a bone,” she laughed, recalling the many hardships and mounting costs encountered along the way. “I never gave up. Not in my nature.”
Today, the Old North Branch Inn attracts visitors once again. Amenities abound, yet it’s impossible to discern where modern-day updates took place, since Lesser’s attention to detail is meticulous. Visitors will never know where walls were knocked out, or old closets made way for spacious private baths attached to each room, all of which invite with country charm, beautiful decor and peaceful views of the surrounding countryside.
Seamlessly renovated, every corner of the facade remains intact, and although the pool is long gone, the interior boasts a stunning bar brought up from New York City, with its own history, which the proprietor will be happy to share, lugging out the albums filled with photographs that explore the rich history of the inn. Never one to rest on her laurels, Lesser continues to strive for innovation.
“Oh, I’ve got plans,” she said gleefully. “This place is a haven for private parties, family reunions and musical interludes that draw interest from the community as well as visitors.”
The bowling alley is fully functioning and converts into a screening room, providing more opportunities to be entertained in style, while basking in the country charm that abounds. Rotating art exhibits, alluring antiques available for purchase, and that gorgeous bar, which features locally sourced snacks and beverages, enhance any visit to the Old North Branch Inn that Victoria Lesser calls home.
For reservations and information, visit www.theoldnorthbranchinn.com  or call 845/482-5925.