An Inn Returns to Its Roots
Patty and Peter Cooke bought, saved and reinvented the iconic Pickering House on Main Street in Wolfeboro as a welcoming inn.
Everybody in Wolfeboro knew the big yellow house with the fence on Main Street. Built in the early 1800s as a tavern, it later became the home of prominent local business magnate Daniel Pickering. Its uses morphed through the years, from private home to apartments, but it was one of the oldest houses in town and a local landmark.
By late 2015, however, the house had been empty for almost two years and was in such a state of disrepair that the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance placed it on a list of historic properties that needed to be saved. The house was for sale, and a developer was making plans to raze it and build a commercial chain store on the site. In order to protect the property, Wolfeboro residents Patty and Peter Cooke bought the house without knowing exactly what they were going to do with it. What they did, eventually, was restore it into the stately, upscale ten-room Pickering House Inn with an attached event barn.
History of a house
The building’s story began in 1813, when John Pickering constructed it on South Main Street. Two years later, his brother, Daniel Pickering, bought the Federal-style tavern and converted it to his private home. In the 1840s, he enlarged and remodeled it in the Greek Revival style. Daniel was a mover and shaker in 1800s Wolfeboro. He opened many businesses, including the Pavilion Hotel, a signature destination that attracted guests from all over New England.
By the time the Cookes bought the old Pickering place in early 2016, most of its ninety-three windows were falling apart and the layout of the house had been reconfigured over the years to a resemble a rabbit warren, with twenty-eight rooms, including six apartments. Paint was peeling inside and out, and siding and flooring were in a sorry state. Wallboard covered older layers of wallboard. The foundations were failing. Some parts of the structure had no foundation whatsoever.
The Cookes’ immediate goal was to stop the destruction and commercial development of the property. Next, they needed to ascertain that it was feasible to save the building. Then, they had to figure out what to make of it. They embarked on a four-month, market-research project to see what kind of business might best serve the community of Wolfeboro and the greater Lake Winnipesaukee region. Just a few months after buying the house, the Cookes were able to announce that they would make it an inn—a circle back to its earliest days as a tavern.
As an inn, not only would the property help sustain itself, it would create a luxury option for in-town accommodations. Since neither Patty nor Peter is an innkeeper by trade—she owns a renovation design firm in Wolfeboro called Wentworth Style, LLC, which won the award in Excellence in Remodeling/Renovation for the Red Cottage project at January’s New Hampshire Home Design Awards (see page 69), and he works in commercial real estate and finance—they attended inn school (two, in fact) in order to educate themselves about hospitality. Since they weren’t planning to become full-time innkeepers—they wanted to have a staff run the inn—they were interested to learn, among other things, that an inn needs at least ten rooms to support a staff. Going to inn school was a smart move, Patty says: “We were able to make informed decisions.”
Tackling a landmark
The Cookes wanted to retain as many historic elements as possible, while also making the property sound, safe and comfortable. In addition, Patty and Peter had to make sure the house met all the building codes required for an inn. In the process of breaking down the dilapidated and compromised interior and exploring its possibilities, Patty and Peter faced questions common to all restorers of old properties that have undergone centuries of remodeling and reconfiguring: What to save and what to keep? It’s not possible to return a home to exactly how it was when it was built: Maybe someone in the 1840s took down an original wall to build an addition. Maybe someone a century later subdivided the interior for apartments.
In addition, buildings must evolve with the needs of their occupants—and the requirements of the local building codes. “I am not a purist,” Patty says. “I do believe in restoring and saving as much as possible, but people live differently now. My philosophy is you keep a balance, while saving what you can.”
One of her earliest priorities was the fence around the street-facing parts of the house. At one time, many of the houses on Main Street had such fences, but the Pickering House’s fence was the last remaining. Patty was determined to save it. She decided it was a good starter project, because it could be handled on its own and wasn’t connected to other parts of the house. “We also began with that fence, so it wouldn’t get cut from the budget,” says Patty, who knew that was likely to happen if the fence were saved until last. Today, the handsomely restored fence, with its balusters in alternating patterns, provides a reminder of the Main Street of yore. One section of the fence was not reinstalled due to an added patio, but the extra balusters were repurposed for a unique staircase railing inside the inn.
As the Cookes worked on the property, there were many decisions to make. As a restoration designer, Patty says, “I can see what things can be, and I’m good at going backward to get there.” During the process, she often asked herself: “Does it work for the viability of the inn but also retain the character of the house?” Creating a public inn meant the team had to incorporate mandatory safety features, such as sprinklers and beams. But the Cookes also wanted to preserve as many original details as possible. The library, for example, has its original woodwork, marble fireplace and windows. The Cookes hired Alison Hardy, of Window Woman of New England in Amesbury, Massachusetts, to evaluate the house’s windows, and learned that only the living room and library windows could be reasonably restored, because they had been protected by the porch.
In the process of breaking down and building up, the Cookes also saved as many materials from the home and adjoining barn as possible, and incorporated them into the renovated building in creative ways. Lumber, granite and architectural features all found new uses. Due to fire and safety codes, not all materials, such as doors, could serve their original purpose. Patty decided to use some of the building’s original doors as decorative woodwork along the sides of a staircase. A door from the library is now a headboard in one of the guestrooms.
The Cookes also repurposed items found in the walls—old sheet music, a medical benefits ledger and numerous whiskey bottles—and framed or displayed them on shelves in the pantry. What was found in the walls ended up on the walls. One particularly clever bit of reuse involved a two-hundred-year-old maple tree that had to be cut down because it was so close to the house that its roots were compromising the foundation. The Cookes had the tree milled and used its wood to create a striking, long table for the inn’s meeting room, a counter for the gathering kitchen and a built-in shelf.
Not long after the Cookes bought the house, they realized many in town were curious about what was being done with the old Pickering place. People felt proprietary about it, and the Cookes understood. Patty had been coming to Wolfeboro in the summers since she was five, and she and Peter did the same as soon as they were married. Other residents had lived in town for generations. One woman recalled trailing a stick along the house’s fence as she walked to school as a child. The Cookes decided to create a blog to let the community know what was happening. They posted about milestones, such as what was going on with the fence, when site work was commencing and when the inn was going to open.
The blog became an invaluable resource, not only because it provided information to the surrounding community, but also because it connected the Cookes to those who knew the house’s history. “We got deluged with emails from people with ties to the area,” Patty says. In June 2018, right before the inn opened for business, the Cookes had an open house so the community could see the restored inn. “More than fifteen hundred people were here for more than three hours,” Patty says. “There was a line down the street, in the rain.”
A new old inn
The finished inn features ten unique-ly configured and furnished guestrooms, including one Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant guestroom. Four guestrooms have fireplaces, and all have bathrooms with heated floors and electronic showers—features the Pickerings could not have imagined but presumably would have appreciated!
To replace the floors, which could not be saved, the Cookes used wood from Carlisle Wide Plank Floors in Stoddard. The new windows are from the Pella Architect Series, and the paint is from Johnson Paint and Wallpaper in Wolfeboro. Eastern Propane & Oil of Rochester installed the new, efficient heating system, a project Patty describes as complicated and challenging. Other key contributors to the finished interiors include Crown Point Cabinetry of Claremont and The Nantucket BeadBoard Company of Rochester.
Throughout the interior, Patty used a neutral palette with pops of color and architectural details. The overall effect is sophisticated—traditional and comfortable without being too quaint.
Common rooms include a library, pantry (where many of the artifacts found in the walls are displayed), living room, and “gathering kitchen” where guests eat breakfast as well as enjoy appetizers and drinks served in the afternoons. The gathering kitchen is also used for special events. The inn has a professional kitchen where the chef works and a meeting room for business get-togethers. Outdoors, there are two patios with fire pits and a porch.
“I wanted multiple places for people to gather,” Patty says. “We based a lot of the business model on places we have stayed: what we liked, but also what we wished had been part of the experience. As far as the design, we wanted a high-end, stylized, eclectic feel but keeping it comfortable—not overbearing.”
The siding on the house had to be completely replaced, and the Cookes opted for HardiePlank fiber cement siding from James Hardie. Patty says she has used this material for numerous other projects, including their own house in Wolfeboro. Roof shingles were made by CertainTeed.
Another essential part of the property is the adjoining barn. When the Cookes bought the barn, it was in extremely bad condition and lacked a foundation. They renovated the space and turned it into an event site. With a large main-floor area and loft galleries running lengthwise along both sides of the barn, the venue can accommodate 150 people. The inn hosts a limited number of weddings each year and serves up occasional, family-style “innkeepers’ suppers” that are open to the public.
Labor of love
Patty and Peter are thrilled with the inn, and also with the guests they have met and the neighbors, contractors, vendors and other people they have encountered through the project. In 2019, they were gratified to learn that the Pickering House Inn had been named to the National Register of Historic Places. “I think our job has been to preserve this building for the next chapter,” Patty says. “Now it’s going to last another two hundred to three hundred years.”