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Staying Power

Saved from the auction block, Richmond's only historic inn desperately wants a place in your heart.


With more than a billion dollars being pumped into various projects downtown, there is no better time for Linden Row's comeback.

Nash's exuberance is unapologetic, effusive and, until recently, unlikely to have been believed. It is the result of a $3.7 million facelift planned for the hotel, thanks to attention from the Historic Richmond Foundation, and the patient and deep-pocketed optimism of new owners who have bailed it out of bankruptcy.

"It's suffered over the last 12 months," says Don Charles, executive director of Historic Richmond Foundation. Guests of the hotel "may have had a marginal experience" and conclude it to be symptomatic of a looming and unfixable problem. "It was in a bit of shambles," Charles notes. "Its future was by no means certain."

Linden Row's vulnerability was of grave concern to HRF because it would have been expected to ante up funds to save the hotel if an appropriate buyer hadn't stepped in. "I must admit there were some nervous times," says Charles.

The vintage brick inn, tucked behind a row of magnolia trees on East Franklin Street, is furnished with more than $100,000 worth of antiques — beds, desks, fixtures, wardrobes, armoires — either owned or entrusted to HRF. The antiques help preserve and remind visitors of the inn's authenticity and historic character.

The first of the seven Greek revival row houses and out kitchens that make up Linden Row were private residences built in 1847. Legend proclaims that as a child, Edgar Allan Poe frequented its gardens. During the Civil War and until 1906, Linden Row served as home to three distinct schools for women and girls — most notably, Virginia Randolph Ellet's school, the predecessor to what is now St. Catherine's School on Grove Avenue.

In 1980, local architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott gave the property to HRF, which later sold it to a North Carolina-based hotel group. Linden Row underwent extensive renovation in 1988. Most recently it was owned and operated by the Remo hotel group of Michigan. The entity owned a handful of properties across the country and, according to Nash, used profits from Linden Row to pay down its rising corporate debts.

For years Linden Row managed this way, feigning a happy face, stifling its suffering and gritting its teeth behind a courteous yet altogether weathered smile of resignation. Remarkably, business — however sporadic — remained good because of yearly General Assembly bookings and spillover from nearby hotels like The Jefferson. Its average daily rate of $97.08 and an occupancy rate of 62 percent meant they were doing business, Nash says.

But by December 2002, the hotel staff had dwindled from three dozen to a handful. The inn's physical appearance had begun to deteriorate, too. Termites and rotting floorboards threatened collapse. Nash, who previously worked at The Jefferson, recalls it reached the point where "the silverware was awful, the rooms were awful, the staff was awful." Linden Row's demise seemed imminent.

Unable to reverse its mounting debt, Remo began bankruptcy proceedings and in February, Linden Row was put on the auction block.

Then something serendipitous happened. Just days before the public offering, a couple from the Washington, D.C., area purchased the hotel for $2.5 million — buying, too, its burgeoning debt. (The hotel is appraised at $3.8 million.) Dr. Bipin Amin, an oncologist and his wife, who is a surgeon, fell in love with the place, Nash says. "It reminded them of one of their favorite places, and that's Charleston, South Carolina."

Whereas Nash's vision for Linden Row is palpable, Amin's is bridled and cautious. "It was a good buy in the heart of downtown," he says by phone from his Maryland home. "We are planning to renovate," he assures. "But it's very new, we really haven't gotten out feet wet."

Amin expects the face-lift — that does not involve actual construction — will take close to two years to complete. "It's not money alone that's needed to do it," he says, but rather a matter of finding the right people and means for accomplishing a substantial amount of work.

Charles, of HRF, agrees. So far, the foundation is in "lock-step" philosophy with the owners about what is best for Linden Row. "Everyone is singing from the same sheet of music," Charles says.

However harmonious, it's a refrain that will require some new and costly measures — like advertising. Customarily, Linden Row has endured a kind of quiet shelf life, what Charles calls the "Richmond Syndrome" in that people "know about it but it's been considered uncool to advertise," he says. Not so anymore.

On a recent Monday afternoon Nash steps from behind the desk in his sunny Linden Row office and moves toward a framed and prominently mounted poster of last month's steeplechase races at Strawberry Hill and, more pointedly, the silver sponsor nameplate at the bottom. Inscribed on it is the name Linden Row Inn. Nash beams, relishing that it has come to this.

"To sleep in the lap of history, try the landmark Linden Row Inn," begins travel writer Ray Cormier's 16-line note to the hotel that appeared in the March 30 issue of The New York Times. This kind of recognition is exactly what Nash hopes will sway out-of-towners to Linden Row and provoke Richmonders to view it in a new light — as a treasure.

Linden Row has been completely booked on weekends for more than a month, says Susan News, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. Philip Morris, Virginia Commonwealth University and the city of Richmond regularly have conferences there. Traveling theater companies and companies with prospective transfers reserve rooms for weeks at a time. Bookings for weddings and receptions are increasing. Still, to many in Richmond, the perception persists that the hotel is languishing.

But now, equipped with money and resources, Nash says Linden Row is posed to become the landmark destination it was intended to be. "Our goal is to make it a four-star, four-diamond by November," he says passionately. It's current rating with AAA is three-diamond.

Nash's optimism has its limits. Linden Row doesn't fancy itself a Jefferson, he confesses, referring to the five-star, five-diamond hotel a few blocks west of the sleepy inn. "The Jefferson is the crown of Richmond," Nash says. "We just want to be one of its jewels." S

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