When the Quechee Lakes Landowners’ Association, Inc. (QLLA) was incorporated 50 years ago, it not only reflected the thousands of open, pristine acres on which it currently sits, but also the man behind its inception, L. John Davidson.
With a dream of preserving traditional values in a self-contained commercial establishment on that land that belonged primarily to local farmers and millworkers, Davidson realized that the farmlands, trails, hills, forests, wildlife and Ottauquechee River provided the perfect setting for his vision.
But before he became the visionary developer of one of the largest and most successful developments in New England, Davidson knew he had some hard work to do, for when he arrived in the village of Quechee in the mid-1960s from his home state of Massachusetts, he was shocked and saddened by what he saw.
“I found a very depressed place,” Davidson said recently. “Rats were walking along the main street, the mill was closed, the Parker House roof had caved in from a fire, the town had a stone wall running down the street that had crumbled, and the covered bridge had fallen down during the 1938 hurricane.”
Undaunted, Davidson was resolute to bring the tiny village back to life. “I was determined to buy every one of the 70 houses and restore them, including the stone wall,” said Davidson. “It took four years to research who owned what and to make a deal with property owners within a $2 million budget.”
And so, between 1965-1970, Davidson went door to door, shaking the hands of owners, most of whom had farms, and negotiating prices of sale. As a young man, he graduated from Phillips Andover and Harvard University. He worked in his father’s restaurants, was on air patrol in the Korean War and later operated clothing stores in Cambridge and Andover, MA.
Most importantly, having grown up in Andover, across from a dairy farm, Davidson was familiar with the lifestyle that went with it. “I milked cows and had a paper route for the Saturday Evening Post,” Davidson recalled. “So, I knew what it was like to run a dairy farm. I had a way of talking that people of that background understood.”
Not one owner held out from selling. “More than one looked me straight in the eye, shook hands and sometimes with tears in their eyes asked me to take care of their land,” Davidson said. “They had put their whole lives into it, and so I did.”
But Davidson hadn’t just arrived in Vermont to save a small mill town. He had something else in mind, something he said had never been done in real estate – not even today. “I had to find a balance between a quiet but practical situation,” he said. “I knew that I couldn’t just bring back the town and land and then leave. I had to figure out how to maintain them.”
So, Davidson came up with a few “inventions,” as he called them, to not only preserve the environment and its holdings but to generate monies to sustain them. Enter the single-family condominium.
“I wanted the homes and exterior yards to be under control of an association in order not to have them fall into disrepair or have some kind of crazy colors,” he said. “And, I wanted to maintain a rural feel. With the open land, I came up with a valley floor that would be preserved to look the same as the pastures it contained, so I put in two golf courses.”
One day, as Davidson took his children on a ride in an off-road vehicle around the open land, one of his daughters looked up at him and asked, “Where are the deer going to live?”
“And that became the heart of the land plan that I finally created,” said Davidson.
As a result, Davidson dedicated half his project to a permanent greenbelt, composed of 2-3,000 acres that would preserve the integrity and natural beauty of the valley.
The original Quechee Lakes Master Plan was approved on September 27, 1971 and was based on a letter submitted to the Planning Commission by Davidson. In May 1980, the Master Plan was amended twice; and again in 1982 and 1984 with several more over the years.
Davidson was unwavering in his mission to preserve the nostalgia and old-fashioned values threaded into a resort area for families to visit and/or reside.
“The greenbelt gave room for trails and wildlife in a perfect setting,” said Davidson. “The hills displayed the beauty of Vermont with the valley below and the river running through it.”
Phidias Dantos – a close friend and business partner of Davidson – first worked with him to defeat urban renewal in Andover. Afterward, the two formed Danton Realty Trust. Following their work in Andover, Davidson developed Quechee Lakes of which Dantos was the Club Manager from 1973-74. As such, some of Dantos’ duties included overseeing the restaurant, pool, exercise room, and squash courts, among other areas.
“John definitely fulfilled his mission,” said Dantos. “The proof is in the eating. He helped to preserve the pristine Vermont hillside by camouflaging all the condo units. I remember him saying that no one should have to look at a laundry line of drying clothes. A genius he was.”
Today, there are over 1,700 homes and condominiums in the Quechee development where Davidson rebuilt the covered bridge, restored the mill and relocated other buildings throughout the town. He developed ski trails and built ski lifts for residents, two championship golf courses, two lakes and a 50-mile trail system.
His farmstead concept was unique to the real estate industry, and he was the first to offer the single-family home as a condominium.
At 89 years old, Davidson currently resides in Atkinson, NH where he continues to have an active life. The key to his successful venture in Vermont, he related, was due to a variety of factors.
“It was the dedication of space, the restriction of cutting down trees, the enforcement of their covenant, the benefits derived from a single-family condominium being controlled by the association, the farmsteads that made it possible to restrict development, the control of the improvements of the downtown area, and the restoration of the mill,” said Davidson. “It’s a complicated world, and it’s nice to preserve (a part of Vermont’s history).”
Publisher’s Note: An affable American Greek, Phidias Dantos was (and still is) dashing, vivacious and very charming. And, boy, does he have stories to tell…some fit for mainstream consumption and others, not so much! I had the pleasure of hearing a few during our recent chat about the early days of Quechee.
“Did you hear about the Thanksgiving story,” Phid asked me? I had not but was eager to listen now.
In his Massachusetts accent, he proceeded to tell me…
“Al Moulton called me up and said, ‘Phid, I need you to come be our Club Manager. I had to fire so-and-so’” [Al Moulton was the President of the Quechee Lakes Corporation at that time]. Phid had just sold the Hotel Coolidge in White River Jct. and thus had the time and opportunity to take over. What he didn’t know was how bad things had become at the Club.
This was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Phid took stock of the situation, gathered the unruly staff, and told them how he expected things to be from then on. “I had very high standards, you know, and we would do it right!” Come Monday morning, Phid had a mutiny on his hands… no one showed up!
Phid reminded me that this was now three days before Thanksgiving. He had reservations for more than 80 people and the place was a mess! Much of the silverware had been pilfered, dishes and glassware had been broken, and nothing edible was to be found.
“So, I called my friend, the food and beverage manager at the Hanover Inn, and asked him, ‘Do you have linens, silverware, and glassware for 10 tables of 8 I can use for Thanksgiving Day?’” “Sure! Bring your van and we’ll load you up.”
Next he needed staff. Phid then asked Chef Ron, his highly regarded chef from the Hotel Coolidge, who was off on Thursday, if he would be willing to cook the ten or more turkeys and all of the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner, and could he put together a team of servers and kitchen help…
“So, in two days’ time, we somehow pulled all of the pieces into place and put on a spread that was perfect! People are still talking about it!”
“Now, the lobster bake did not work out so well…,” he said with a chuckle.