The Grace Manor InnNeighbors used to call it a boardinghouse for eccentric older women, and for 35 years the red-brick mansion at Grace and Meadow streets saw a succession of resident ladies step inside past more highly painted ones occasionally strolling the sidewalk.
Mrs. Brauer, who ran the place, had the good sense not to trifle with the building's elaborate interior details: ribbon-motif plaster and wood trim, pocket doors, chandeliers and sconces, and glowing heart-of-pine floors. Everything remained as classically girlish as when William Zimmermann built the place in 1910 as a golden anniversary present for his wife, Louise.
The house changed hands over the generations, and four years ago it assumed its newest identity as the Grace Manor Inn with owners Dawn and Albert Schick. An evening of insomnia had driven Dawn online to browse through a Web site of inns for sale, and the Richmond house with its ornate Victorian fretwork jumped out as a must-see opportunity. Within months the couple had moved from their small Cape Cod home in Fredericksburg into the 7,500-square-foot manor house in a town they'd learn to adopt quickly as they opened their business.
The Schicks knew they wanted to run a bed-and-breakfast. She's a private chef; he's a hotel-management graduate from Michigan State with a business technology background.
"We have always loved entertaining; I make up excuses to have a dinner party," Dawn says. "Now we get to prepare breakfasts and share this house, which is really meant to be shared with others. We try to make each experience as seamless and enjoyable for guests as possible."
That means offering concierge services such as arranging tours and trips, preparing elegant dinners complete with roses and chocolates, and providing menus to local restaurants and directions anywhere a guest wants to go.
During winter months, the inn's three suites and adjacent carriage house and apartment building are booked with legislators in town for the Virginia General Assembly. For the fourth year, Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Sen. Patsy Ticer and Delelgate Al Eisenberg all from Northern Virginia have retreated to the inn after their work at the Capitol. Roanoke's Sen. John Edwards is another regular, along with a guest list of tourists and history buffs from Canada and Europe, and wedding couples and business travelers closer to home.
Inside the three-story house, guests find a spacious double parlor, a music room with a baby grand piano and gilded furnishings, a conservatory, two balconies overlooking a well-tended ribbon garden draped with fuchsia bougainvillea, a grand entry hall and private guest suites layered with period details.
Furnishing the inn became an immediate preoccupation for the Schicks when they bought the house, and for a month of Sundays they were regulars at Stonefront Auctions in Fredericksburg, where they picked up antiques and reproductions, paintings and accessories in soft jewel tones that enhance the house's vintage character.
Though it's thoroughly modern, a professional kitchen installed by the couple doesn't seem an anachronism at the back of the house. Its huge Vulcan range, stainless-steel countertops and well-planned work areas allow Dawn to turn out elaborate three-course breakfasts, served with Bellinis and mimosas in the formal dining room beside the gas-log fireplace.
It takes a certain personality to run a B&B, the Schicks acknowledge, and not everyone understands the degree of maintenance and attention required to do the job well and to build a reputation for hospitality. Knowing when to mingle with guests and when to discreetly disappear into the owner's suite is an acquired skill, Albert says: "You can tell literally within the first five minutes what kind of experience a guest wants to have. Most people want to interact with their hosts, to have a glass of wine and share time together." Sometimes, guests prefer a higher degree of privacy and seek out spots inside and outdoors to read, rest or work.
When groups of six book the inn together, a house-party atmosphere is more likely, and the Schicks may set out extra wine and cheese and allow their three Yorkshire terriers to play with guests.
And play isn't a foreign concept for the innkeepers, either. "We find a way to go skiing or take a two-hour bike ride, little windows of time," Dawn says. "And we always have our holiday parties and take nice vacations. We've even taken reservations on our cell phone while we're sitting on the beach. That's the beauty of this kind of life." D.T.
The Virginia Cliffe InnOne way to maintain a beloved family homeplace is to turn it into a business, which is how the Virginia Cliffe Inn came into being 10 years ago in Glen Allen.
Signs of growth in the neighborhood are all around the cultural arts center, new subdivisions, a retail explosion and the concept of a big old house with acreage and outbuildings and a pond with swans is nearly obsolete in the bustling area.
But Margaret and James Clifton, who have lived on the Mountain Road property since 1952, wanted their children and grandchildren to carry on the homeplace tradition. They established their business as a way to preserve the past and keep the property in the family.
James Clifton, a contractor, took apart an old farmhouse on the grounds in 1972, salvaging all the materials he could to fashion a new, larger home modeled after George Washington's military headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y. The striking white clapboard exterior with its balcony and columns has formed the backdrop for plenty of weddings since the house became an inn in 1998. The gardens in back surround a tented dance floor that has been the highlight of some 250 receptions.
Three generations of Cliftons now work for the inn, which has five guest rooms, a separate cottage and six acres of lawn planted with roses, tulips and azaleas. It's not unusual to see a Clifton grandson setting up white folding chairs on the front lawn on a Saturday morning or to notice the flurry of activity among caterers and florists as they prepare for another ceremony. The Inn's white gazebo is often swagged with tulle and flowers, and couples often pose on the bridge or amid the gardens for their portraits.
Sometimes the wedding party comes in costume or period dress; there have been Civil War weddings, Hawaiian ones, and ceremonies with nautical and antique-car themes. Dogs have carried rings; bagpipers or members of the Richmond Symphony have played; and any number of DJs and bands have entertained into the night.
The hum of activity at the inn requires careful planning and a steady supply of energy. Margaret Clifton, who has seen her grandchildren graduate and marry, has begun to pass the reins to her daughter, Janice Clifton. But for now she continues to serve a full country-style breakfast around the kitchen table, where guests feel like members of the family. They've come from Turkey and Japan and all over Europe, sometimes staying for weeks but usually traveling through Virginia to learn about history or to visit relatives.
"It's a different kind of clientele that comes to a bed-and-breakfast instead of a hotel," Margaret Clifton says, "and they usually like for us to sit down with them and talk about everything imaginable and they always like the nice, big breakfast."
Being an innkeeper has been harder work and less lucrative than some people imagine it to be, Janice Clifton says, particularly when the number of guest rooms is small and the costs of maintenance and upkeep are significant. Still, the business is appealing to people who want to be their own boss, to do things their way and to engage in a steady parade of new experiences as hosts to guests from all over the world.
"You have to be very congenial and roll with the punches when things change," Margaret Clifton says of the work. "You have to take care of everything that comes up and be committed to caring for your guests and making them feel welcome and like family." Precisely what the old homeplace is all about. D.T.
The William Miller House
Pat Daniels and Mike Rohde originally bought their old home in the Fan for their children in 1994. A son and daughter were attending Virginia Commonwealth University at the time, and the home's location at the corner of Floyd Avenue and Morris Street, just two blocks from campus, was perfect.
But when the couple's jobs with AT&T brought them to Richmond in 1996, they kicked out the kids and began renovating, the idea of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast always in the back of their minds.
"When we moved here, this was no-man's-land," Rohde says. "We were considered urban pioneers to move to the 1100 block of Floyd. I don't think there were more than three permanent residents in the area."
But they loved the house and had come to love the area. So much so that when their contracts with AT&T were up after a year, the couple took early retirement and decided to make the house their job.
Built in 1869 by William Miller, their home is one of the earliest structures in the area and one of the few wood-frame houses. Miller was a marble worker, so the house features several marble mantels.
For two years, they lovingly restored the home, keeping the wavy period glass and other original details. Daniels, who later co-owned Three French Hens antique shop, filled the home with antiques and other pieces she picked up on buying trips or during the couple's travels through Europe.
As renovations proceeded, Daniels and Rohde realized how expensive it would be to maintain the house. So it was settled: They decided to go B&B, enabling them to finance the upkeep and help supplement their retirement savings.
After tossing around the idea for a while, they got a call one night in 2000 that would launch their careers as innkeepers.
Lynn Benson, who at the time had a B&B on Monument Avenue, had overbooked. She asked Daniels and Rohde if they wanted to take on visitors that weekend and try things out. They agreed and then began seeking a special-use permit from City Council.
That proved to be an arduous process. After a year of assuring the city that visitors would have a positive impact on the local economy and that their business wouldn't increase traffic (they don't take walk-ins), they finally received the permit, although they aren't allowed to hang a sign.
With just two guest rooms, Daniels and Rohde manage to do all the work themselves. Rohde takes pride in the cooking, preparing a hearty gourmet breakfast for guests at 9 a.m. Daniels takes care of the cleaning. "The cleaning you do in a B&B is like the weekly cleaning you would do in your home," she says. "Every day is like your house is for sale."
They both welcome guests and estimate they spend about 50 to 60 percent of their lives working as innkeepers.
"One of the hardest things to figure out is the level of interaction people want," Rohde says. "Some want to sit by the fire, and others want to know every aspect of the renovation and history of the house. Pat doesn't get sick of it, but I get tired of telling the same story over and over."
Sometimes Daniels and Rohde are surprised, they say. When they think visitors aren't enjoying themselves, the guests end up booking another visit before checking out. And the couple can't always predict when they will have a busy season, although they get a lot of people in the late fall on their way to Florida for the winter. Their home usually books up for the Richmond Marathon, the Monument Avenue 10K, NASCAR, the Fan Holiday House Tour and events at the local colleges. There are many business travelers, guest lecturers at VCU, grandparents visiting children in the Fan and young couples from the suburbs getting away for an anniversary (still within distance of their babies in case of emergencies).
"We have a high return rate," Rohde says. "We've watched people's kids grow up and graduate from VCU or UR." One set of parents had been coming for several years while their daughter was in school. When she asked to have her wedding at the inn, the family held a 12-person ceremony in the courtyard. (The B&B usually has no special events because of lack of space.)
Their roles as innkeepers often have Daniels and Rohde staying in on Friday nights, waiting for a guest who is stuck in traffic to arrive from Washington, D.C., and sometimes the couple's personal lives overlap with those of their visitors. The innkeepers share their living room and dining room with guests (their living quarters, in a newer extension off the back of the house, are off-limits to visitors). And there have been occasions when Daniels and Rohde have had guests join their dinner parties after their return from a night out.
"Part of why people stay in a bed-and-breakfast is because they want to see what life is like in Richmond," Daniels says. At their intimate inn, Daniels and Rohde provide just that. C.C
To Stay There
The Grace Manor Inn
1853 W. Grace St., Richmond
The William Miller House Bed
1129 Floyd Ave., Richmond
The Virginia Cliffe Inn
2900 Mountain Road, Glen Allen