Another grand old Berkshire retreat has been acquired by those working to address South County’s dire lack of affordable housing. The 13-bedroom Windflower Inn, just north of South Egremont village, will be sold to Construct, Inc. on Thursday, December 1. The 13-thousand-square-foot inn is changing hands fully furnished and will serve as a temporary fix for those in between addresses or working seasonally. The housing support organization is paying $1,425,000 for the ten-acre property and hopes to begin welcoming lodgers as soon as January. (An additional free-standing, four-bedroom, two-bath house, and three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath cottage on the property are currently occupied.)
The new re-purposing of the Windflower started out as the brainchild of local restauranteur Josh Irwin, who has, by necessity, turned his attention lately to the problem of workforce housing. In 2015, he opened Cantina 229 in New Marlborough, followed, in 2019, by Moon Cloud on Railroad Street in Great Barrington, which is co-owned by Billy Paul . Within the past year, his wife Emily opened Home Love, a home goods shop, further down the street.
Not only has staffing these businesses become increasingly difficult, but Irwin’s entrepreneurial mind saw more opportunity everywhere. “I kept seeing ideas that in my head were like, ‘Yes, this would be good for our town! Oh my god, we do need a lunch spot. I could do something in Subway. Why is nobody using the flying church?’”
Once his imagining turned practical, he always hit the same brick wall. Who would work there, and where would they live? The recent real estate boom and shift to short-term rentals has demolished the long-term rental stock in and around Great Barrington. There are only so many people willing to drive long distances for a service job. One of Moon Cloud’s employees has been commuting an hour from Springfield for three years and can’t get to work when the weather is bad. Irwin’s wife has an employee at Home Love who’s been coming up empty on apartments despite looking consistently for months and months. “Eventually she will find something, but in the interim, she needs somewhere to stay. She’s been couchsurfing.”
Thus to a late winter night in early 2021, when Cantina was closed, another busy summer season was looming on the horizon, and Josh Irwin found himself scrolling real estate listings on Zillow. “I saw one for a 20-bedroom, and said to myself, ‘Ooh, what’s that?’ I clicked on it and found The Windflower.”
He reached out to Steve Picheny, who’s been involved in economic development in the region, and to a few investors, framing his pitch as, “Let’s solve for apples with apple seeds.” The deal looked to him like “a layup.” His investors bought in, he put in an offer, and signed a purchase and sales agreement. But once he started crunching the numbers and saw what a time-consuming enterprise he was signing on to, he started having second thoughts. The closing was set for August 1, to coincide with the busiest time in his year. He already had a full-time job, and taking on The Windflower looked like “several full-time jobs.”
Here is where Construct, or, more specifically, Leigh Davis, Development Director at Construct and Great Barrington Select Board member, enters the story. She had visited The Windflower on the day of its inspection and had been tracking Irwin’s progress. In April, she was eating breakfast with Picheny at GB Eats, talking housing, when he mentioned that it looked like Josh was going to have to release the Inn. Davis. told me, “I was like, ‘What?’ I almost jumped from my seat. ‘Call him right now. Don’t let him release it,’ I said. Let me pitch this.” She ran into Irwin on Railroad Street and he agreed to hold off on releasing the property until Davis could get approval from Construct.
They relate what happened next as though they’d partnered on the deal from the get-go.
Davis: “It was perfect. We have house managers in place, we have maintenance, staffing …”
Irwin: “Strong relationships with banks.”
Davis: “I pitched it the next day to the real estate committee, drafted this executive summary, and just took what Josh had told me.”
Irwin: “I immediately just shipped her all the numbers, ‘Here you go, here’s the spreadsheets …’”
Davis: “Basically, I’m channeling Josh to the real estate committee. They said, ‘Go for it.’ It happened within like four days.”
Perfect timing, too, as it turned out, because Irwin was battling another potential buyer. “Who’s going to purchase these pieces of real estate, these old B&Bs?” he asked. “It’s going to be somebody who’s going to either knock it down or do a full remodel and turn it into something really cool, for more tourism. Which is great, but not what we need right now.” But neither Davis nor Irwin is under any illusion that this one purchase will turn tides. “We’re not gonna fix any problem,” he acknowledged, “but we are going to isolate a small portion of the problem, which was labor shortages. This is a landing zone.” Construct is already taking applications from local businessowners for potential renters, who will pay between $800 and $950 for a room that includes a full bathroom, and use of a communal, industrial-sized kitchen and washing facilities downstairs, located in what once might have been the servants’ eating quarters.
The Windflower Inn has actually had several names and purposes in its 170-year history. The main house was built around 1850 as a gentleman’s farm. According to the 1913 obituary for one Charles Reed, he’d bought the property a decade earlier, when it was called the Greenwood Farm, changed the name to Fairfield Farm, and “had lately greatly enlarged the house and improved the property.” The former Egremont Golf Club began its life as the private golf course of a prior owner, who also had his own landing strip.
Sometime toward the middle of the 20th century, Fairfield Farm, the private home, turned into the Fairfield Inn. From 1980, the Inn was in the hands of the Liebert family, who changed the name to The Windflower. Up until the late 1980s, Barbara and Gerald Liebert, and then their daughter Claudia and her husband John Ryan, ran it as a full-service inn, with a restaurant they maintained for the first 17 years. Claudia Ryan, now the Assistant Town Clerk for the town of Richmond, moved there in her 20s, and left it in her 60s. “We did Farm to Table before it was even a concept,” she recalled. “My husband had gone to school for Plant and Soil Sciences and Arboriculture, and we had huge gardens, beautiful flower beds, but also had huge vegetable gardens.”
The Ryans sold the inn to the McCarthy’s in 2016, who came from the Poughkeepsie area. Tom worked in tech support, and Michelle as a medical technician, and they had several friends who owned B&Bs. “We decided to look for something, and this kind of fit the bill.” It’s been non-stop work since the Wednesday in 2016 when they closed on the Windflower. “We closed on Wednesday, had a full house on Friday.” They’re ready for a change.
The new use for the Windflower is in keeping with a tradition started by the Liebert/Ryans—and maintained by the McCarthys—of renting out rooms to people in between homes or friends of friends in need of a temporary place to lay their heads. One of these folks had happened to be Leigh Davis, who lived at the Windflower in 2008, when she’d just relocated here from Ireland, and had not yet bought her own house. “The Ryans embraced me. It was a kind of makeshift home for me while I was in transition from moving from one country to another. The owners let me use this tiny room and said, ‘Whenever you need it.’”
On their end, the McCarthy’s are looking forward to taking a few days off, and visiting some of the Berkshire County tourist destinations—Mass MOCA, The Clark—that only guests got to see. They’re pleased about the future of the property. “Having to employ people ourselves, we know how difficult it is to find help, so I think it’s a really great idea to do something community-minded.”
Building on such community-mindedness is imperative if folks want to continue to enjoy a vibrant culinary and cultural life here, says Irwin. “You got to start to pump some nutrients in the ground, and this is where it starts. It’s not investing in me and my next restaurant, it’s investing in the ability for me to do my next restaurant … I got lucky that I was bored that night. Otherwise, right now you’d be hearing about a new developer coming in to turn The Windflower into a five-star hotel with a high-end chef, and guess what? They’d be open a couple weeks.”
Many other large empty properties—The Williamsville Inn in West Stockbridge, Blantyre in Lenox, and The DeSisto School in Stockbridge come to mind—occupy large parcels of the local landscape, and no one quite knows what to do with them. Perhaps an unusual collaboration in Great Barrington will show the way.