Accidental innkeepers' success

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Carol Sorgen

For those who have harbored a secret fantasy of opening a quaint bed and breakfast (does the TV show “Newhart” ring a bell?), innkeeper Anne Pomykala gently offers these words of advice: “It’s alot of work. It’s not as romantic as you think.”

That being said, the 72-year-old owner of the Gramercy Mansion Bed & Breakfast in Greenspring Valley, as well as the 1840s Carrollton Inn in Baltimore City, has no regrets. It turned out to be an unexpected, yet ultimately rewarding, mid-life career opportunity.

Pomykala and her husband Ronald, 76, are born and bred Washingtonians who knew little about Baltimore before purchasing the Gramercy 25 years ago. They were visiting a friend at Johns Hopkins Hospital and saw an ad for the sale of the mansion. At the time, it housed the Koinonia Foundation, a spiritual community.

“We took one look and fell in love with it,” said Pomykala. “We decided to buy it and make it our home.”

The manor house, built in the first years of the 20th century, was in a state of disrepair, as were the carriage house and various other outbuildings situated on the 45-acre property. As a result, neither developers nor individual homeowners were flocking to the auctioneer to purchase the estate.

“Every roof leaked, the septic system leaked, only one of the three wells was working…there was a lot to do,” Pomykala recalled. Undaunted, they purchased it for what she called a “low” $670,000.

“Of course, we put a lot more money into restoring it,” Pomykala said mildly. “We didn’t go in blindfolded. We knew we had a lot to do, but not quite how much or how expensive it was going to be.”

A house with a history

Gramercy Mansion has a long and storied past that appealed to the Pomykalas. In 1902, Alexander Cassatt bought the heavily wooded property as a present for his daughter, Eliza, at the time of her marriage to W. Plunkett Steward, founder of the still existing Greenspring Valley Hunt Club.

Cassatt himself was well-known for his role as president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In later years, his fame became overshadowed by that of his sister, Mary Cassatt, an Impressionist painter who depicted the social and private lives of women, and whose work can be found in the National Gallery of Art.

Cassatt designed Gramercy to resemble the family’s summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine. Built in the style of an Old English Tudor manor house, the mansion had 25 rooms, including an eight-room servant’s wing.

In ensuing generations the mansion passed through several other well-known Baltimore families, including descendants of Benjamin Franklin and a senator.

At the time of their purchase, Anne Pomykala was a full-time homemaker raising her six children. Her husband was, and still is, a practicing dentist.

Neither had ever restored an historic property, but Anne came from a construction family so she had some knowledge of what needed to be done.

She also was an active Girl Scout volunteer and credits much of her ability to see the project through to that experience. Girl Scouting teaches girls how to “organize, delegate and work together,” she explained.

It didn’t take long before the Pomykalas realized that making Gramercy their full-time residence was not economically feasible. “The bills started coming in, and we decided it just couldn’t stay a private home,” she said. 

A year after purchasing the property, they opened part of it to the public as a one-room bed and breakfast. In all, it took 10 years to completely renovate the mansion and the entire estate, including an apartment building, carriage house, outbuildings and gardens. Today, the Gramercy offers 11 rooms and suites to the public, each individually furnished with period pieces.

“Opening a B&B wasn’t what we anticipated, but we found it wasn’t bad,” said Pomykala. At the beginning, she was its reservationist, greeter, housekeeper, chef and more.

Today, the inn has a staff of 20 to handle the day-to-day operations. Pomykala has stepped back somewhat, and her daughter, Cristin, now serves as manager.

“I still ‘meet and greet’ but I don’t have to do the hard work anymore,” she laughed.

In addition to hosting its many guests (who have included such celebrities as Ron Howard), Gramercy is a popular site for wed

dings, romantic “elopements,” conferences, wine dinners, culinary classes and high teas.

The estate is also home to the oldest organic farm in Maryland, Koinonia Organic Farm, founded in 1950. Herbs from the seven-acre farm — including basic, oregano, thyme, marjoram, spearmint, cilantro, tarragon, sage and rosemary — are sold in Whole Foods and Giant Foods, among other retail stores.

And while Pomykala wasn’t looking to expand her innkeeping business, in the late 1990s when Baltimore City closed its City Life Museums, she saw an opportunity not only to restore another neglected property but also to revitalize a long-forgotten part of Baltimore City — the Jonestown neighborhood.

It took several years (and several changes in the City administration), but in late 2003 Pomykala finally took over the six abandoned townhouses. From those and areas nearby she created the 13-room 1840s Carrollton Inn on Albemarle Street as well as the 30,000-square-foot 1840

s Plaza, an event space on South Front Street. The Inn is managed by her son-in-law, Cristin’s husband, Tim Kline.

Effect of the Internet

The B&B industry has changed in the 25 years since Pomykala fell into it.

At the start, it was difficult to get guests. “You had to sign up with a reservations service and hope people found you,” she said.

But the Internet has changed all that. She no longer relies on reservations services or even print publications to advertise the properties.

Through their colorful websites, e-mail newsletter and blogs, Pomykala’s properties — and the B&B industry overall — are enjoying unprecedented success among travelers of all ages. “The Internet is where it’s at for any small business,” said Pomykala,

One of the chief benefits of being online is that travelers who are looking for a more personalized, less touristy experience than is usually found at traditional hotels and motels tend to search for luxury bed and breakfasts, finding sites like Gramercy and the Carrollton Inn.

Besides creating a successful innkeeping business, Pomykala is especially proud of the fact that she was able to restore several of Baltimore’s historic properties and to be one of the pioneers of the Jonestown neighborhood revitalization, just blocks from the Inner Harbor.

“My biggest reward is knowing that we have contributed to a city we didn’t know at all when we first purchased Gramercy,” said Pomykala. She recalled car trips as a child through a hot and muggy Baltimore that left her with an unflattering image of the city.

“Once we were here, though, we found that Baltimore is a hometown…something Washington is not,” said Pomykala.

 

“In Washington, everyone is transient,” she said. “In Baltimore, there are people who are friendly, caring and concerned about their city. Everyone has a connection.”