What's the man who dreamed up the artificial Christmas tree doing running a country inn outside Charlottesville?

"I had a mid-life crisis," said Bill Sheehan. "I couldn't see 20 years with a plastics company in New York. I was vice-president of marketing. I wanted to show my kids how life should be lived -- not tell them when it was too late."

Sheehan didn't become an innkeeper overnight. First he studied what made him happy and found that Saturday, the day he puttered around fixing things -- a long list in his pocket -- was his favorite day. He needed a flexible but engrossing job.

"We moved to Virginia Beach, and hunted for a big house we could turn into a comfortable inn," he said. Three years later, they bought Prospect Hill, a rambling yellow frame house with green shutters. It used to be a plantation, and the slaves' quarters, old kitchen and carriage house sit in two neat rows beside the main house.

The original owner had moved into the barn when his house burned, adding more rooms and a front porch later; but you can still see the hayloft and decorative woodwork that was part of the original barn. The Sheehans furnished the first-floor sitting rooms with cozy couches and chairs.

"When we drove down the road between the boxwoods, I knew something special would be at the end," said Sheehan. "Bells and sirens went off when I saw the house. We weren't looking for a house built in 1732, but we had to have this one."

When the real-estate agent told Sheehan that the slave quarters would make good storage sheds, he saw them as guest cottages; so far two are complete. The first has two bedrooms: "Couples who know each other very well or a family could stay here." The other, ideal for honeymooners, has a bedroom with lots of windows and a small sitting room. Two rooms in the main house are available as well, but guests have to share a bathroom. The Sheehans plan to keep the inn small -- ten guest rooms.

Sheehan's attention to detail is impressive, with colorful quilts and flowers in each room, books on the bedside tables and oriental rugs on the floors. Sheehan buys flowered sheets and thick towels. All the rooms have fireplaces; the inn is open all year.

Mrs. Sheehan opened an antique shop in the old kitchen, selling small desks, tables and crafts made in Virginia. She tends gardens in the yards where guests rest in hammocks, sip iced tea and talk.

The family lives in the main house now, but plans to move into the carriage house when it's done: "An architect once stayed here, and when he got home he drew up a whole set of plans for the carriage house and sent them to me. He said not to touch the outside, so I won't," said Sheehan.

Country inns mean good food. Mrs. Sheehan, who was born in France, taught her husband how to cook. "I grew up in an Irish family, and if we spent any longer than 20 minutes at the dinner table, it was considered a waste of time," he said. "I feel more French -- they live to eat."

So Wednesday through Saturday nights he cooks for 40 people, dishes such as gazpacho, filet de boeuf, zucchini frittata and mousseline au chocolate. "I don't stick to one cuisine; I pore over cookbooks and combine foods that go well together." Dinner begins at 8 and ends around 10. "We don't eat -- we dine," said Sheehan.

While the Sheehans don't serve dinner every night, they always serve a hearty breakfast. In fact, he brings breakfast and the morning paper to his guests each morning. "People like to be taken care of," he said. They don't serve lunch, but if you're around they'll do fruit and cheese. Most people are sightseeing.

A beautiful, handmade, plastic Christmas tree stands in the attic, but they won't ever use it again. "Down here, we cut our own. We like the real thing," he said.