The Comeback Inn

Following a 2003 fire that killed two guests, the Clifton Inn restored its 1799 exterior and made the interior lighter and more modern. Above, one of 14 guest rooms. Below, a chef's table near the kitchen.
Following a 2003 fire that killed two guests, the Clifton Inn restored its 1799 exterior and made the interior lighter and more modern. Above, one of 14 guest rooms. Below, a chef's table near the kitchen. (Room And Kitchen Photos By Rand Larson; Exterior By Philip Beaurline)

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By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Astorm had knocked out the power on a chilly November night, so the inn's workers and guests stoked the fireplace and lighted candles on a table in the living room. Sometime after the staff went home late that night, fire consumed a large part of the Clifton Inn, killing two lawyers from New York who had come to Charlottesville to recruit students at the law school.

Two years later, sitting in that lovely room now with Brazilian jazz jumping on the sound system and the smell of bacon summoning me to breakfast, it's hard to imagine the tragedy of that night in 2003. There were lawsuits and settlements, heartache and strain over how to rebuild the grand 1799 home built by Thomas Mann Randolph, an early governor of Virginia and son-in-law of Thomas Jefferson.

But Clifton is back, and late last year it became the first U.S. hotel in three years to receive one of the highest honors a hotel can win, membership in Relais & Chateaux, the French association of 450 high-end, independently owned boutique hotels and restaurants.

Sitting atop a hill overlooking the Rivanna River, Clifton looks much as it ever did, a welcoming white clapboard Colonial on 100 acres of lush Virginia countryside.

Inside, however, this is a new Clifton, restored to its post-Colonial splendor but updated in decor, systems and safety. First things first: I've never seen a more fire-conscious hotel -- extinguishers in every room, detectors galore. Management converted fireplaces to gas, installed a new alarm system and keeps a security person on duty overnight.

Coming back was not easy. Clifton's owners, Mitch and Emily Willey of Alexandria, faced suits from the families of the fire's victims, an investigation by the Albemarle County fire marshal and the task of convincing the public that the inn was safe.

Gradually, the new Clifton came into view: The suits were settled for an undisclosed sum. The fire marshal concluded an eight-month investigation by declaring the blaze accidental.

And the core of Clifton's staff remained on the payroll, managing the renovations. The showcase wine collection had to be replaced because of heat and smoke damage. Some antiques salvaged from the fire were restored.

"We wanted to preserve the architectural integrity but make Clifton more light, more hip," says Mitch Willey, who, with his wife, bought the house in 1983 when it was "almost uninhabitable," with overgrown grounds and an owner who had never set foot in the cottage out back.

After the fire, the Willeys redid Clifton's seven guest rooms in the main house (another seven are in three cottages) with a mix of Colonial pieces and contemporary comfort (high-speed Internet, too). Where the fire destroyed original floorboards, carpenters used old, local wood to re-create that weathered, rustic look.

Rare for a historic inn, the bathrooms are state-of-the-art: "I have a thing for views from showers," says Willey. "I do my best thinking in showers." So he insisted they be large, with lots of sunshine. The water pressure makes almost any home shower seem like a pathetic trickle.

A formal house has been transformed into a hybrid designed for a younger clientele, featuring the kind of amenities found in small hotels of a similar price range ($200 to $500 a night, plus dinner at about $90 a head). The Bose CD player in our room came with Norah Jones, Louis Armstrong and Vivaldi at the ready. The dining room music was the kind of chill sound heard in 14th Street nightclubs.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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