Inside a 22-Person Pandemic Pod in a Hudson Valley Hotel "The inn was a boat. And then it became a life raft"
In late spring of 2020, while most hotels across the country sat empty, the Suminski Innski, a three-story Italianate mansion turned bed and breakfast, was packed. In Room 2, a WNYC reporter — who, by that point, had been there for months — spent his days recording in a makeshift studio. Next door in Room 4, two children, ages 10 and 13, were convalescing from particularly bad cases of COVID. Downstairs, a Bard senior had taken over the sunroom 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 Hudson Valley town where locals co-existed with Bard College professors and students who rented off-campus houses. In 2003, Tim Voell was a bartender at the Black Swan — the town’s local bar — when he became infatuated with the mansion, which was in total disrepair. He looked up the property tax records at the town hall and sent a typewritten letter to its owner, a 93-year-old woman named Josephine de Nigris. A widow and concert pianist who lived alone, de Nigris received the note and set up a meeting with Voell at the house. He volunteered to restore it, she said yes, and he moved in and started work. Ultimately, the two got married — she needed someone to take care of her in her old age, and Tim did just that, caring for her lovingly as a friend. When she died two years later, he opened the mansion as an inn. It had four proper bedrooms and a wrap-around porch that looked out onto the Hudson.
From the start, Voell made a point of taking on long-term guests as well as short-term ones to sustain income and a sense of community through the cold, quiet winter months upstate. Bard students would rent rooms for whole semesters. Artists would come for quasi-residencies, along with friends of Tim’s, professors, and young people seeking work in exchange for a bedroom. So it made sense that when COVID hit — and the inn’s short-term guests dropped to zero — Voell would fill the place with people looking for somewhere to stay.
“We started with six people in March,” says Ryan Voell, Tim’s nephew. “David escaped from Mexico and came up here. Jim escaped Brooklyn.” In May, Talulah moved from Durango, Colorado; Ksenia, an editor, and her son, Yarosha, arrived from the city. In June, Theophila, Reese, Roo, Vita, and Emma — two Bard graduates and three Bard students — joined. Then came Kelly and Carolyn, an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly and a curator of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library, respectively, plus their 6-week old baby, Hadwin. By July, the inn’s population sat at 22. Every conceivable space had become a bedroom: the two parlor rooms, the outside camper meant for the summer months, and the sunroom. Voell gave up his own room to accommodate everyone, sleeping in the sunroom on a mattress for a while before eventually moving out to a hotel across the river for the majority of the winter. They had karaoke marathons, poker nights every Friday, and group celebrations for Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
In May, Voell reopened the inn to short-term guests. This means the pandemic residents who have continued to live there are now bouncing between rooms, staying wherever there’s space for them. Many, though, have headed elsewhere — back to the city, back to their parents’ homes. “During that time,” Voell says, “the inn was a boat, a cruise liner or something. I was the captain. And then it became a life raft, and we squeezed on as many people as we could for as long as we could.”
The Innkeeper - Tim Voell
"If you make enough people love the place it creates this good energy, that for example can keep the place afloat during an economic and health crisis… You got to fry a lot of bacon to make a lot of people happy for that many years.”
Ksenia Semenov (right) and Yarosha (left) decided to move to the inn after Yarosha’s school closed. Semenov first heard about the place from her friend Lena Siyanko, the director of PS21, who lived at the inn for a while in the early aughts. In the Innski, Ksenia started a newsletter on artificial intelligence while her son was in remote school.“Yarosha was going to school in Manhattan and struggling with English,” Ksenia says. “When he came here, he learned English so fast, like in two months, perfect English. Dark, who is like 50, became his best friend — they spent the whole summer together.”
Dark, a writer, producer, and director, has lived at the inn for the past 11 years. He met Tim in 2006 at a Fourth of July pool party in the Hudson Valley right after Tim and Josephine married.
David Sater is an aspiring alchemist, writer, collector, and visual artist. He graduated from Bard College in 2014 and has lived at the inn on and off since 2015. Sater once wrote a story based on the inn — in it, the inn was a sanatorium where people recovered from a ‘sickness in the spirit’ spreading across the country. When the pandemic hit, Sater was in Oaxaca, and realized that his fictional narrative was, in a sense, coming true. He decided he had to return to the inn. “This house is like an alchemical vessel,” he says. “It’s always burbling, it generates stories."
Luca Santana and Jacob Frandsen graduated from Bard College in the Spring of 2021. Luca studied studio arts and Jacob majored in theater. They were both studying abroad in Germany when the lockdown began in 2020. They stayed in Germany until they finished their respective programs, then moved into Suminski to complete their final year of college. Luca and Jacob hadn’t left the inn since the pandemic began. “Sometimes it can get claustrophobic, and that’s why going down to the river is good, even for our own relationship,” Luca says. “We would normally have a more healthy dynamic of alone time, class time and friend time. Sometimes I had to do class downstairs because we would have class at the same time. We occasionally use a partition to help navigate our living and working spaces being combined into one.”
Carolyn Vega (left), a curator of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library, and Kelly Burdick (right), an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly, joined the pod with their 6-week-old baby, Hadwin, in early summer. Fourteen people were already living at the inn when they moved in. “I’d work over the breakfast table with the housekeeper’s son, who was doing remote school,” says Kelly.
In June, Vita Taurke — a dancer and choreographer who graduated from Bard in 2018 — went to visit the inn to meet Tim, whom she had heard about through her friend Roo. Tim handed her blankets that day and said, “You’re in Room 9 for the next few nights.” Vita stayed through the summer of 2020 in various rooms — 9, then 8, then the converted back parlor. “It felt like a fever dream,” she says. “We were always having little events, like an impromptu tea party for Emma’s birthday.”
Ryan Voell, Tim’s nephew, moved into the inn five years ago (“I thought it was going to be a two-week staycation,” he says). Ryan has worked as a carpenter, a gardener, and a chef for the inn — and is now handling the summer reservations from a tent platform he and his uncle built in the backyard.
“We would have these special nights every Tuesday where, if the residents wanted to, they would perform,” says Talulah Gilroy, who moved to the inn in May 2020 from Durango, Colorado, to work on her brother’s nearby mushroom farm. “Dark and Coco would sing, Roo would do her dance recital, and David would set up all his candles and everyone would perform.”
During lockdown, Bard College shut down the art studios the seniors used to work on their senior projects. So Coco Goupil — who was in their senior year in the Studio Arts department in March 2020 — asked Tim if they could use the sun room, one of the grand old parlor rooms with a wall of south-facing windows— to finish their senior thesis. One of the main pieces from their project was a 14 1/2 foot ink drawing of a nun on heavyweight paper mounted to five pieces of luan, which has now become a fixture at the inn. “Tim let me install the nun by the river,” they said. “She’s an invitation to look, appreciate and to meditate on the landscape. I didn't become aware of how appreciated she was until she fell down — I spotted all these people down there trying to push her back up.”
“When I tell people that I live with 15 people, they’re like, ‘Like a commune?’ And I’m like, ‘Maybe?’” says Zack Young (seen here with their cat, Babka), a Bard student studying foreign language, literature, and culture with concentrations in Spanish and Chinese.
Natasha Dillahunt (right), a postpartum doula and lactation counselor, became sick with COVID-19 in March 2020. Next came her husband, Jeremy (left), an ESG story teller for brands, then her 13-year-old daughter, Flynn; then her 10-year-old daughter, Reilly-May. In June, Reilly-May was diagnosed with post-COVID multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Eager for a quiet place for her to recover, Natasha called Tim, whom she and Jeremy had befriended during their Bard years, to ask if the family (plus their two guinea pigs) could come stay after their quarantine ended. Their arrival last summer brought the total number of people at the inn to 22.
“Something funny happened every day, like when my mom got chased across the yard by Tim’s bees in her bikini,” says Flynn Dillahunt. “But there were no kids my age there, and I had zero space. Like, no matter where I went, someone from the Innski was always there. Our room was very, very, very, very cramped. My mom, my dad, me, and my sister had to share. I got a single mattress on the floor, and my sister slept on a blow-up. My parents got the bed. It was so so small with all of us in there — and my dad snores like a freaking freight train.”
“I can’t really believe we made it through so many months of the pandemic without a COVID case,” says Emma Johnston, a Bard student who moved onto the third floor in June 2020. “I’m proud of how we worked together to keep each other safe. We stayed mostly isolated — no one at the inn was spending time unmasked around other people, and no one was coming over to the inn who didn’t live there. But of course we did make exceptions for family and lovers.”