About a year ago, Stephen and I went to the Inn at Little Washington for Southern Lady. We pulled into a small crossroads of a town, just east of the Shenandoah Valley, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. I had heard stories of lavish interiors and extraordinary food. The town itself, however, gave the impression of quaint, yet idyllic Americana. A small downtown, a kind of village, really, with beautifully manicured window boxes and gardens, and board-and-batten exteriors in stately greens, blues, and reds—colorful, yes, but not overbearing. As we got ourselves situated, the chef and proprietor himself, Patrick O’Connell, helped get our bags into our room.
Stepping inside, the interiors dripped with an unexpected degree of luxury. Beautifully patterned fabrics lined the walls and draped in billows from the ceilings. Monkeys danced in the bar room wallpaper—indicative of a whimsical playfulness at work throughout the place. In working on the story about this wonderfully peculiar locale, I got an unexpected lesson on the meaning of place and how valuable it is to feel at peace with your surroundings and then share that with others.
O’Connell first came to this part of Virginia as a child. His family would go on road trips from D.C. to the Shenandoah Valley, and Washington (known as “Little Washington” to differentiate it from the busy capitol) fashioned itself as a roadside stop. Its two main streets were peppered with service stations. In fact, O’Connell’s well-appointed inn was previously a tire shop and gas station—something hard to imagine today.
The way O’Connell explains it, this little town—the first place in the United States named after our first president—held special meaning for him. It became a part of him, and, in turn, he left an indelible mark on it.
“My sense is that when you find your ideal ‘spot,’ everything falls into place,” he told me. “You know you’ve found it because you feel centered, secure and in harmony.”
O’Connell and Little Washington became two parts of a whole. He started with the restaurant in the former service station, always envisioning expanding to create a larger inn. He then added he surrounding pasture land, and shops down the main street. Last year, they created a parsonage across the street from main inn.
For O’Connell, making the Inn at Little Washington meant celebrating the best that the area has to offer, and offering it to others as an immersive experience.
“Amazingly, it’s still possible here to create your own visual landscape by screening out anything you don’t want to look at and controlling your views and vistas,” he said. “Through imaginative landscape planning, it’s possible to design your own idealized universe in miniature.”
Not everyone has the kind of all-encompassing vision that O’Connell possessed when he embarked on the creation of his inn—an endeavor that has taken nearly 40 years. From the intricate flavors of his food to the decorative details of the interiors, each piece speaks to an imagination paired with great ingenuity.
The experience also speaks to the power of place. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan argues that a place comes into being through experience and familiarity. It is deeply personal. Yet those gifted in hospitality have the ability to offer their experiences to others, and craft a meaningful place to the uninitiated. Not everyone can stand among the rolling hills of Virginia and see the possibilities realized at the Inn at Little Washington. Yet the power of one person’s especially strong understanding of that area can make a special experience available to guests.
I have no ambition to own an inn or open a restaurant. Hearing O’Connell’s thoughts on the power of place and seeing his ability to present his enjoyment of the area to travelers, however, does inspire me let an air of hospitality speak through the places I have the ability to create.
Stephen and I bought a home just before Christmas last year, and we have since set out to make it our own. More than that, though, I am learning from the South’s sanctuaries of hospitality, that in crafting a place for us, I also have the opportunity to invite others in to enjoy the love and happiness that allowed us to make a home in the first place.
For more on the Inn at Little Washington, see the story in Travel South, Southern Lady's new travel special edition.