Built as a private home in 1884, the Inn at Crystal Lake today is a landmark of hospitality in Eaton, New Hampshire.Photo Credit : Maggie Scarlett/Conway Daily Sun
This is probably our most popular space,” Tim Ostendorf tells me as we tour the 10-room inn that he and his partner, Bobby Barker, have operated for more than 20 years. The upstairs corner suite is cozy, but the draw is the view. Perfectly framed in the window is Eaton, New Hampshire’s famous Little White Church, and beyond that you can see the shimmering waters of Crystal Lake. “Folks who are getting married there love this view of the church.”
The historic church, now one of the most photographed in New England, was only five years old in 1884, when Nathaniel Palmer built this spacious Greek Revival charmer. Palmer soon started taking in summer travelers, and the place became known, rather predictably, as the Palmer House.
Nathaniel died in 1899, but the Palmer family carried the business forward into the 1940s. Along the way, the inn served dual purposes: It housed the town library for a time, and the post office, too. For a period in the 1960s and early 1970s, it operated as a boarding school. In 1986, new owners rechristened it the Inn at Crystal Lake.
In the late ’90s, Ostendorf was working for a software company and Barker had a job in housing development. They lived just outside Boston, but they purchased a vacation cottage in Conway, New Hampshire—perfect for weekend escapes. On one of those trips, they meandered through the village of Eaton, population 400. Largely unchanged for more than a century, Eaton is a kind of quiet eye at the center of a tourism storm, being just north of the Lakes Region, just south of the White Mountains, and only a stone’s throw from the Maine state line.
“There was something so charming in the way Route 153 snaked through the village, around the lake, past the church and the village store, and, of course, the inn,” says Ostendorf. When the couple discovered that the inn was for sale, they decided to buy it, even though neither of them had particularly relevant experience.
“I thought we were being crazy and spontaneous,” says Ostendorf, “so I was honestly surprised when so many of our friends responded to the big news with some version of ‘That’s great! You are finally doing what you’ve always wanted to do!’ I guess I had talked about it more than I realized.”
They took ownership of the inn on a Wednesday in July 2001. They had their first guests two days later, and they never looked back. They first operated it as a bed-and-breakfast, then opened their in-house restaurant in 2003. In 2005, Ostendorf, a classically trained baritone, launched his series of solo opera dinners.
“Those were such fun nights,” Ostendorf recalls. “Crazy, but fun. I’d be welcoming guests, then run into the back, change jackets, and come out to perform. It was insanity, but you do it because you don’t know that you can’t.”
When their chef left five years ago, Barker took over the kitchen full-time. It wasn’t until the pandemic slowdown that the couple had a moment to appreciate just how tired they were.
“Most inn owners last only a handful of years,” Ostendorf notes. “We’d been going strong for nearly two decades. That’s pretty good.”
During the shutdown, they made major upgrades, including the replacement of all the windows and installation of mini-split air-conditioning units. But when the pandemic was winding down and it was time to ramp back up, they couldn’t find the energy to return to the way things were. And that meant it was time to move on.
“Over the years, we imprinted our personalities on this place, and there is still so much untapped potential,” Ostendorf says. “There’s a lot going on in this little corner [of the state], and the inn is right at the heart of it…. All the attractions in Conway are only 15 minutes away. There are quality organizations like the Stone Mountain Arts Center, who have been great partners for us. There’s excellent infrastructure for someone to step in and hit the ground running. Or maybe there’s a different vision, and they’d take it somewhere new.”
Having fallen in love with the area, Ostendorf and Barker won’t be far away. They’ve purchased a rural property just down the road in Freedom, New Hampshire.
But a funny thing has happened on their way to Freedom. “When we reopened [the inn], we scaled down,” Ostendorf says. “We didn’t open the restaurant, so we’re a B&B again.” The inn was already on the market, but the pared-down operation agreed with them. “In this less ambitious model, we still get the fun of hosting guests, but we also get to go home at night. We can still get out and do things.
“So if the right person and the right offer come along, we’ll be excited to sell. But if it takes some time to get there, that might be OK, too.”
The Inn at Crystal Lake is being offered for $1.4 million. For information, contact Roger Turgeon at the Virtual Realty Group at 603-717-4851.