InnSpiration

Rick Rizza’s corporate experience and engineering aptitude, combined with his wife’s background in decorating, have made The Inn at Montpelier a draw to those seeking an elegant place to relax 

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon 

Rick and Rita Rizza (from left) sold their homes in Pennsylvania and Killington and cashed in Rick’s 401(k) plan to fulfill his 30-year dream of owning a New England inn. They are pictured in the main living room of The Inn at Montpelier with Rick’s son, Brian, who works with them.

Neither George nor Martha Washington slept here, but Martha Stewart did. So did Laura Bush, and Yo Yo Ma, and a long list of individuals from the famous and infamous to the unknown.

“Here” is the Inn at Montpelier, whose 19 gorgeous guest rooms reside in a pair of beautifully restored, stately, historic homes from the early part of the 19th century. The Main Street property, which is also home to a 10-apartment former carriage house, has been owned by innkeepers Rick and Rita Rizza since Sept. 29, 1999. Rick Rizza remembers the date exactly, because that was the day his 30-year dream came to fruition.

About a year earlier, Rick had found himself without a job. “US Gauge retired me,” he says with a chuckle. “I had had a dream of being an innkeeper for years and decided that it was now or never to try it.”

Rick had a long and honorable career behind him, with skills that lent themselves to the complexities of self-employment. The Connecticut native graduated from the University of New Haven with a degree in mechanical engineering and went on to earn his master of business administration from the school.

From there, he joined corporate America, where he worked as an engineer over 34 years, for companies such as Dresser Industries, a manufacturer of thermometers and pressure gauges, and Philips Electronics, which makes automotive controls. At Philips, he rose to operations manager, having managed factories in Connecticut and Mexico. His last position was with US Gauge, a division of Ametek in Bucks County, Pa.

At the closing in 1999, Rick and Rita were relative newlyweds, having met in 1994 and married in June 1997. Each had a prior marriage and children: Rick has four children and Rita, two.

A native of Italy, Rita migrated to the United States in 1951 with her mother and her stepfather. They settled in Connecticut. In addition to raising two children, Rita worked in banking, “every aspect,” she says; real estate — “gave up my license twice”; and interior design. She attended Pear Art School for a brief time, and when her younger son was 11, she went to work for Ethan Allen Furniture, becoming store manager in a few  years. 

“I decided that wasn’t where I wanted to go,” she says, “so I went back to design, working with Ethan Allen.” She did that for 18 years, receiving an international award in 1988. She and Rick met through his sister, who also worked at Ethan Allen.

When the couple decided to pursue Rick’s dream of innkeeping in 1998, they didn’t just dump everything in a spurt of romance. “We sat down,” says Rita, “trying to define what we wanted to do; what we could do, and what we didn’t want to do. That’s important, because this is not a place you can buy and decide within three years to quit.”

The Rizzas made detailed lists, she says, “his strengths and my strengths, our weaknesses, and the strengths kept on screaming inn, inn, inn.”

They began researching inns. “I really wanted to stay in the Pennsylvania area, but there was nothing available at the time,” says Rita. “He had a  little condo in Killington, so we said, ‘Let’s sell the house, go there, revamp, get our thoughts together, and do this as a full-time job.’”

They started talking to innkeepers, asking questions such as, “What did you do wrong? What did you do right? What did you like about this? Not like? What should we be careful about?”

The Number One answer, consistently was, “Do not live in the house you’re working in,” Rita recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll help you with your dream, but no way am I going to live in a closet.’”

The process took about six months, They put offers on properties in Manchester, Killington, Rhode Island, and Lennox, Mass. which they missed by three weeks.

They found The Inn at Montpelier in a picture at a broker’s office. Rita says she “went ballistic” when she saw the architecture, then looked at the asking price and said, “OK, turn the page.” She couldn’t get it out of her mind, though. 

Rick was also taken by the inn and the area. “One of the things I liked was being in a small town. I didn’t want to be out in a rural location, and Montpelier, being a capital, had a lot of business clientele coming to town for the Legislature and government offices, as well as tourists. The number of beds for sale in Montpelier are not many, just a little over 100 beds.

Still, the price was steep. The property as listed consisted of four buildings — the two main buildings and two apartments buildings. They told the brokers to let them know if the price changed. 

Although the dining room is open only to guests for the Rizzas’ generous Continental breakfast, the inn is available for special dinners for about 30, or as many as 65 on the wrap-around front porch for wedding receptions. Rita Rizza gets ready for breakfast.

Three months later the broker called to say one of the apartments buildings was removed from the listing, and were they still interested. They were.

In addition to selling the Pennsylvania house, the Rizzas sold the Killington condo and cashed in his 401(k) plan. “By the way,” he says with a laugh, “the DOW was 11,200 when I did that.

The property was a good one for the Rizzas in many ways, not the least of which was the ability to have separate living quarters in one of the apartments in the former carriage house. The inn was created in 1988, when a complete renovation was undertaken. That meant the Rizzas were not faced with major construction, but the decor was tired and uninspiring.

“It had been under absentee ownership for about three to four years,” says Rick, “so it also needed a bit of business attention. For example, all the reservations were done manually; there were no computers to do it. I developed a computer network for the business. We had a lot of other infrastructure work, some equipment that needed replacing, such as the dishwasher and hot water heater; we repaired the chimneys and did some work on the foundation.”

Rita set to work redecorating. The rooms are generous in size and furnished with genuine antiques. Rita ordered custom-made bedspreads that can be changed along with the sheets, to meet her cleanliness standards. Around every corner is a delightful surprise, even in the hallways, where a small table and chair might invite a passerby to stop for a minute; and little shelves and niches and warm lighting offer a feeling of home. There are 10 fireplaces in the two buildings, all but one in working order. 

“They’re very thorough,” says Rosemarie White, vice president, commercial banking at TD Banknorth in Montpelier. “Rick is the operational side, while Rita is the creative visionary. Rita tells Rick to do something, and he does it,” she quips.

White says it is always a pleasure to deal with them. “They’re conscientious. I wish all my customers were like them.”

Both houses have a small kitchen with back stairs “that take you right to the cookie jar,” she says. The jar is always full of Rick’s chocolate chip cookies.

Each guestroom has a private bath, cable TV, telephone with data ports and individual heat and air conditioning controls. There is wireless computer access in the common areas.

In the second building, what the Rizzas call the “gathering room,” situated outside Room 11, can seat 16 people at tables and be used for family holidays or business meetings. Doors off the gathering room lead to a large stone porch.

One change the Rizzas made caused a bit of controversy in town. “Our driveway cut between Main and St. Paul streets. It had been used as a public street for 70 some years, with 250 to 300 cars a day driving through between the buildings,” says Rick, adding that the city even kept it plowed in winter. 

Concerned about the noise level and the safety of their guests, the Rizzas obtained approval to close off the cut-through, and then developed a paved parking lot, put up fencing and built a six-car garage. “People in Montpelier still haven’t forgiven me for that,” says Rick. 

While Rita handles the decorating and manages the kitchen and its homemade breakfast goodies, Rick does maintenance and repairs, keeps the books, manages the website, and handles other administrative duties from his office near the main entrance.

The inn’s signature feature is an elegant wraparound porch, which the Rizzas say is a landmark in the area. In the summer, it can hold up to 65 for wedding receptions, and guests eat breakfast there daily. “It’s like a living room,” says Rita. 

Although the inn does not serve meals to the public, guests receive a generous Continental breakfast consisting of fresh fruit, homemade jams, lemon curd, granola and muesli. All the baked goods are made at New England Culinary Institute’s La Brioche Bakery in Montpelier. 

Rick’s 28-year-old son, Brian, has been working with the couple since February 2000. He does the payroll and some office work, makes reservations and works with Rick on maintenance. He, too, has an apartment in the carriage house.

“Brian had a job in Connecticut as salesman for a stone and tile company,” says Rick. “He came up to visit us, and I told him if he was interested, we would love to have him join us. He thought about it and decided he would give it a try.”

Brian says he started part-time, doing breakfast, and then moved into the night shift. “Then I started working mornings on the desk and learned that. In-between, my dad showed me how to fix a boiler, do wallpaper — and the flat roofs don’t always shovel themselves.”

As a family member, Brian offers another advantage. “People come to inns expecting to have contact with an owner,” says Rick. “We have gotten to the point in this business where we can step away more often, and Brian can take over as manager when we’re gone.”

“What Rick and I like most about this is, we’ve always been workaholics,” Rita says. “You have to be good at a lot of things, because you never know what hat you’re going to be wearing; what broke; who shoveled; who made beds.”

The Rizzas don’t plan to be innkeepers forever; they’d like to retire in a few years. “It depends on when the economy’s ready,” says Rick. “This is like a child: we raised it, cleaned it up, and are trying to make it something wonderful for the town of Montpelier when we leave.

In the meantime, they’ll continue to enjoy the 7,000 guests who visit them every year, and acknowledge it’s a great place for their own children and four grandchildren to visit. As Rick says, “Not everybody has a home with 19 bedrooms.”