Old Rittenhouse Inn: Home Away From Home
As a housekeeper for the famous bed and breakfast, this Bayfield native experienced a one-of-a-kind summer
Photos courtesy of the Rittenhouse Inn
People often describe my hometown of Bayfield, Wisconsin as an idyllic, dreamlike small town on the coast of Lake Superior. There are no fast food restaurants or garishly lit movie theaters. The entire county doesn’t even have a stoplight. It’s easy to get to know shop owners, townspeople, and ferryboat drivers by name—even for tourists just passing through town. Bayfield is famous for several things such as concerts at Big Top Chautauqua, its proximity to the Apostle Islands, the annual Apple Festival, and its wintertime ice caves. But when visitors want the true Bayfield experience, they go to the Old Rittenhouse Inn.
I grew up admiring the Rittenhouse, a large, red Victorian mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast just one block away from downtown Bayfield. But I didn’t actually step foot in its foyer until I was a teenager and needed a summer job. I was thrilled to be hired as a housekeeper. I know, it might seem strange to be that excited about cleaning guest rooms, but it gave me the chance to learn the ins and outs of the place I’d loved from afar.
As summers passed, I observed countless guests fall in love with the inn, too. I opened doors for them and led them to the front desk, where one of my coworkers would greet them and explain the amenities of their weekend home: fireplaces, memory foam mattresses, and whirlpool tubs. I watched them stare in wonder at the ornate dining room I had just finished vacuuming, pick up the jars of locally-made maple syrup and jam that I kept perfectly dusted and organized, and wander through whichever of the 12 guest rooms were open, marveling at the king-size beds where I delicately placed pillows and throw blankets. It never got old.
The Rittenhouse really is as magical as it seems to visitors. Jerry and Mary Phillips bought the former summer home of a Civil War general in the 1970s and remodeled it into the first bed and breakfast in Wisconsin. They later purchased Le Chateau Boutin, a similar mansion nearby with seven guest rooms, a traditional Victorian dining room and sitting room, and a porch looking over Lake Superior from nearly every angle; and the Rittenhouse Cottage, a two-story guest home a block away from the Rittenhouse. Guests may have picked Le Chateau for its lake views or the cottage for extra privacy, but visitors in all three buildings would return to the main Rittenhouse building for breakfast or dinner at its famous Landmark Restaurant.
The Tower room in Le Chateau, one of the Rittenhouse Inn's properties
Mark Phillips, the original innkeepers’ son, and his wife Wendy took over the bed and breakfast in 2004. They are kind, generous, and provide the kind of individual customer service you could only get at an inn like this. I got to know them and their children like family, and even offered to babysit on the evenings—once the inn was spotless, of course.
The inn also features The Landmark Restaurant, where guests, as well as non-guests, can eat breakfast and dinner. Coffee, tea, and baskets of freshly-baked muffins and pastries—the first of a decadent two-course breakfast—await guests in the morning. The second course may include choices of Belgian waffles, cinnamon-swirl French toast, or quiche with locally grown vegetables. For a five-course or two-course dinner, Executive Chef Matt Chingo has perfected the Rittenhouse’s famous apple cider-glazed pork loin and Lake Superior whitefish recipes, just to name a few.
I loved walking through the kitchen while I worked. The loud, boisterous laughter and singing from the chefs and dishwashers was a far cry from the quiet piano music on the other side of the door, but it was a welcome change. I was always first in line to sample and critique new breakfast dishes the chefs invented, and they taught me that blueberries and chocolate chips can and should exist in the same muffin. I helped polish wine glasses and champagne flutes over steaming pots of hot water while listening to Chef Chingo decide what he would do with that week’s bucket of Bayfield-grown raspberries. When my parents and I ate breakfast at the Rittenhouse a few weeks before I left for college, my favorite server made sure we got only the best available that day.
I’ve lived in Minneapolis for three years now, and while the city feels like home to me, I miss Bayfield and summers at the Rittenhouse. I learned more than I thought I could as a housekeeper. I can now fold a fitted sheet with perfect corners—my friends call it “witchcraft,” but the Rittenhouse wouldn’t expect anything less. Thanks to spilled glasses of red wine and smears of chocolate ice cream, I can get a stain out of almost any surface. But I also learned how to make anyone feel comfortable and at home when they’re slightly out of their element.
When city life becomes overwhelming, I think back to my summers at the Rittenhouse. It’s been three years since I walked through the mansion’s doors, but I can still imagine strolling through its vibrant gardens or sitting on Le Chateau’s porch, relaxed, and wishing that summer would never end.
The Rittenhouse Inn
301 Rittenhouse Ave., Bayfield, WI