In late spring 2020, when most hotels across the country were empty, the Suminski Innski, a three-story Italian-style mansion converted into a guesthouse, was packed to capacity. In room 2, a WNYC reporter – who by then had been there for months – spent his days recording in a makeshift studio. Next door, in room 4, two children, aged 10 and 13, were recovering from particularly severe cases of COVID. Downstairs, an elderly Bard had taken over the veranda to complete their senior project – a 14-and-a-half-foot sculpture of a nun.
The Suminski Innski opened in 2009 in Tivoli, New York – a then quiet town in the Hudson Valley where locals coexisted with professors and students from Bard College who rented homes off campus. In 2003, Tim Voell was a bartender at Black Swan – the town’s local bar – when he fell in love with the mansion, which was in disrepair. He consulted the property tax records at the town hall and sent a typed letter to its owner, a 93-year-old woman named Josephine de Nigris. Widow and concert pianist who lived alone, de Nigris received the note and arranged a meeting with Voell at home. He volunteered to restore it, she said yes, and he moved in and started working. In the end, the two got married – she needed someone to take care of her in her old age, and Tim did just that, lovingly caring for her as a friend. When she died two years later, he opened the mansion as an inn. There were four real bedrooms and a wraparound porch that overlooked the Hudson.
From the start, Voell made a point of hiring long-term guests as well as short-term guests to maintain income and a sense of community during the cold and calm winter months of the North. State. Bard students rented rooms for entire semesters. Artists came for quasi-residences, Tim’s friends, teachers and young people looking for work in exchange for a room. So it made sense that when COVID hit – and the hostel’s short-term guests fell to zero – Voell would fill the place with people looking for a place to stay.
“We started with six people in March,” says Ryan Voell, Tim’s nephew. “David escaped from Mexico and came here. Jim escaped from Brooklyn. In May, Talulah moved from Durango, Colorado; Ksenia, an editor, and her son, Yarosha, have arrived from town. In June, Theophila, Reese, Roo, Vita and Emma – two bard graduates and three bard students – joined us. Then came Kelly and Carolyn, editor at Lapham’s Quarterly and a curator of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library, respectively, along with their 6-week-old baby, Hadwin. As of July, the hostel’s population was 22. Every imaginable space had become a bedroom: the two living rooms, the outdoor camper van for the summer months and the veranda. Voell gave up his own bedroom to accommodate everyone, sleeping on the veranda on a mattress for a while before eventually moving to a hotel across the river for most of the winter. They had karaoke marathons, poker nights every Friday, and group Thanksgiving and New Years celebrations.
In May, Voell reopened the hostel to short-stay guests. This means that the pandemic residents who continued to live there now bounce between rooms, staying wherever there is room for them. Many, however, have gone elsewhere – to the city, to their parents’ homes. “At that time,” Voell says, “the inn was a ship, a cruise liner, or something like that. I was the captain. And then it became a life raft, and we squeezed as many people as we could for as long as we could. “