In the late 1950s, Essex Fells, N.J. was a typical white-collar town. A number of professionals, mostly stockbrokers and attorneys, rode the train to Manhattan each morning for work.
Tony Fraioli was not one of these men.
In the basement of his New Jersey home was a laboratory stacked with shelves holding glass jars of chemicals and solutions and a sink for developing photographs. Here, Tony worked on a long-life lithium battery that would run one of the first electric cars and cause a minor explosion that could be heard by his family upstairs at the dinner table.
Tony was a chemical engineer, inventor and father of four; his eldest was Christine. Christine was identical to her father — creative, artistic and brimming with intrigue. In the third grade, Tony transformed the laboratory into a dark room so she could develop her photographs. Looking through the lens of a camera, said Christine, “informed [her] aesthetic visual sense,” which she would use later in life during her 24 years working with the Middlebury College Museum of Art and her most recent endeavor into real estate.
Christine admits that her household was unique and a bit chaotic. The family was Italian and often times sat down for a meal at one in the afternoon and didn’t leave the table until seven at night, pacing through an eight-course meal. Once when Christine brought college friends home for Thanksgiving dinner, her father used an oversized hypodermic needle from the laboratory to inject the turkey with melted butter.
Music was always booming in the house — all four children played instruments. Tony and his wife, Natelle, stressed academic and artistic excellence with the children and made frequent trips to New York City to visit museums. The Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were Christine’s favorites.
When she was 13, Christine was given a beautiful box of oils, brushes, an easel and canvas. She spent hours copying pictures from National Geographic Magazine, once reading an article on American Indians and then painting the buffalo. But, Christine admits, she was not naturally gifted as a painter. “I had no future in it whatsoever,” she said.
When Christine left for school at Middlebury College, she felt at ease. Both of her parents and numerous aunts and uncles had attended the school and she spent summers as a child on her grandfather’s farm in Manchester where her mother had grown up.
“Vermont for me was freedom,” she said. “Vermont gave me a sense of independence very early on.”
She studied art history, exploring various forms of print art — photographs, prints and paintings — while taking an interest in architecture. Her favorite class called Vermont Vernacular Architecture, taught by Professor Glenn Andres, brought Christine to Jessica Swift’s family home on Stewart Lane in Middlebury in 1974. Jessica Swift and her husband were world travelers and maintained a Manhattan apartment while visiting their Middlebury home during summers. In 1939, ten years after the death of her husband, Jessica stayed in the house, relinquishing her Manhattan apartment, and donated her time to charity.
At 106 years old, Jessica invited Christine, now a senior at Middlebury College, into her home to ride the elevator, drink tea and eat cookies and talk about her history in the white house on the hill.
Christine didn’t see the Swift house again until after she came back from graduate school in Colorado. Jessica died in 1981 and the family home was auctioned off. A few years later, John Nelson — a handsome U.S. Air Force veteran and IBM staffer — bought the house and made it into the Swift House Inn. John revamped the main house and old carriage house and bought the Gate House with the turret down on the corner. After meeting him on a blind date, Christine eventually married John and moved into the Swift house. Christine tended the gardens, cooked breakfast, hosted dinners and enjoyed the company of her guests.
While operating the inn, Christine kept her hand in the artistic world, working in various positions at the Middlebury Museum of Art. Among the many jobs she held, she worked as a slide curator, organized exhibitions, mended, hinged, matted and framed works of art, pulling from the skills she learned in graduate school while working at the Denver Art Museum and an art gallery on the underdeveloped St. Charles and Wazee Streets.
The couple sold the inn five years ago when the job became tiresome. In the process of selling, John and Christine learned about the ins and outs of real estate and eventually the couple founded Vermont Lodging Properties in Middlebury in 2004, selling homes, inns, B&Bs and lodging properties at a time when the business was booming. Christine managed to find her niche in real estate. Here, she could work with people in the inn-keeping business, people who loved to entertain, drink, eat, talk — Christine’s people.
Looking back to Tony’s dark room in New Jersey where she developed her first pictures, this is where Christine said she learned to look at the world through a different lens. She developed an eye for visual beauty that not only carried her through her experience at the Middlebury Museum of Art, but also as a realtor assembling beauty from the timber beam construction of historic buildings.
“Taking pictures informed my aesthetic visual sense, because taking pictures as a kid through the lens of a camera, you learn what composition is and how to look at things,” Christine said. “It teaches you a different way of seeing. I think I’ve always been appreciative of that.”