The ins and outs of innkeeping

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Barbara Ruben

In 1975, Jackie and Charlie Reed bought a large Victorian rowhouse in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Northwest Washington. By the time they finally finished renovating it eight years later, their oldest child was a senior in high school.

Charlie advocated selling the seven bedroom house, which was built in 1877. But Jackie hated to part with the stained glass windows and the original wood paneling they had restored.

“I realized our house would make a great bed and breakfast. I said that to my husband, and he said, ‘Over my dead body,’” she recalled.

But a neighbor had relatives visiting from France and not enough room to accommodate them. The Reeds took them in, and more houseguests followed over time.

Soon, Jackie and Charlie discovered they loved having lively conversations and making friends from around the world. “Washington is just a great place to meet people from all over,” Jackie noted.

They soon officially dubbed their burgeoning business the Aaron Shipman Inn after the house’s builder, and it has become the longest operating bed and breakfast (also known as a B&B) in Washington, D.C.

“Our guests become like our family,” said Jackie, now 63. That’s more than a figure of speech. Two guests who met each other at the inn later married each other.

And another guest who lives in Africa returned to Washington to have her children, using the Aaron Shipman Inn as a home base. The Reeds were recently invited to the wedding of one of the children.

An easy business to start

There are about 30 to 35 bed-and-breakfast inns in the District of Columbia, according to Steven Lucas, manager of Bed and Breakfast D.C., a reservation service. “There’s less than a handful in the Maryland suburbs such as Bethesda,” he said.

The Alexandria and Arlington Bed and Breakfast Network lists 22 bed and breakfasts in the northern Virginia area, a number of which having as few as one guest room.

There are no exact figures on the number of B&Bs in our area or nationally. “It’s always a number in flux because it’s a very easy business to get in and out of,” said Jay Karen, the executive director of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International.

Despite the recession, the number of bed and breakfasts has stayed fairly consistent, he said. That’s because people are taking more weekend trips regionally, where they are more likely to book a B&B instead of a hotel.

Many B&B owners today are over 50, Karen said. That’s because “opening bed and breakfasts was a very hot thing to do in the late 80s and 90s, and a lot of those folks have been doing it for 10 to 15 years.”

Paulette Siegrist is one of them. In fact, at 88 (and one-half, as she likes to point out) she may be the oldest B&B owner in the area.

Siegrist opened Corcoran Street Bed and Breakfast in her 1873 rowhouse near Logan Circle 16 years ago after retiring from a job as a court reporter in Chicago. She moved to Washington, buying the house next door to her daughter.

But she discovered that being retired meant “the money you have now is not the money you had then,” Siegrist said. Having a business based on her home is “a great addition that you can use to keep your house up and live the way you want.”

Siegrist opened two of her unused bed rooms to guests, basically leaving them furnished just as they were. She still does the day-to-day work herself, although she has housecleaners who come in every other week to help.

“I have to get up really early in the morning. That’s my only regret,” Siegrist said. “For the most part, everybody is very, very nice and honest. I’ve had no problems. I love people.”

Restoring a fixer upper

Sometimes opening a bed and breakfast becomes the best way to acquire and/or hold onto a valuable property whose costs of upkeep would otherwise get out of hand.

Anne Pomykala, the 72-year-old owner of the Gramercy Mansion Bed & Breakfast in Baltimore, became an accidental innkeeper in that way.

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 auction.

The house and grounds had 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.

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.

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

Because of the state of disrepair of the house and estate, neither developers nor individual homeowners were flocking to the auctioneer. “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 the property for $670,000. “Of course, we put a lot more money into restoring it,” Pomykala said mildly. “We knew we had a lot to do, but not quite how much or how expensive it was going to be.”

Neither of the Pomykalas — she was a full-time homemaker and mother of six children and he was, and still is, a practicing dentist — had ever restored an historic property before.

It didn’t take long before the Pomykalas realized that making the Gramercy their full-time residence wasn’t 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 as a one-room bed and breakfast. Pomykala was the reservationist, greeter, housekeeper, chef and more.

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 such services or even advertises. Through their website, e-mail newsletter and blog, the Gramercy — and the B&B industry overall — are enjoying unprecedented success.

Today, the Gramercy has 11 guestrooms and a staff of 20 that handles the day-to-day operations (including Pomykala’s daughter, Cristin, who serves as manager).

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

Difficult but rewarding

Despite her success, Pomykala gently offers these words of caution to those considering opening their own B&B: “It’s a lot of work. It’s not as romantic as you think.”

Other local innkeepers agree. 

“You can’t do this alone,” said the Aaron Shipman House’s Charlie Reed, 75. “This would have lasted three weeks if I had to make the beds.”

In addition to their housekeeper, he and his wife use a service that handles reservations and financial matters. Also, it can be important to have other sources of regular income. Charlie continued his work as an attorney and his wife, Jackie, managed their investment property after they opened their B&B.

Innkeeper Yoshie Haga knows the workload all too well. She had worked in hotels in her native Japan. So when she bought a run-down turn-of-the century Georgian mansion in the Kalorama Heights neighborhood of Washington 17 years ago, Haga “thought this is something I can basically run with my eyes closed.”

She soon discovered otherwise, however. “You have to have so much energy to do this 24/7,” she said. “In order to do it well and give guests the attention they need, you have to have an awful lot of stamina.”

In the early years she shouldered all the work alone for her 12-room Taft Bridge Inn. But over time, Haga, 60, has hired an innkeeper and part-time housekeeper. 

Like the Reeds, she has enjoyed hosting guests from numerous countries, but laments that it’s difficult to take a vacation herself.

“It’s a hard business,” Haga said. “I am thinking about retiring within five years. But this is my life. It’s my baby. I made this business from scratch, and it’s hard to let go.”

Bill Rouchell, 57, closed his Capitol Hill B&B Maison Orleans in 2010, after 24 years in business. Three years earlier, he had undergone triple bypass surgery after a guest, who was a doctor, rushed him to the hospital.

“Those guests [who were at the inn at the time] still call every week to see how I am. We have become great friends,” he said.

But that health crisis led Rouchell to re-evaluate his three-guest room B&B and take in housemates rather than temporary lodgers. Rouchell is still considering whether he will reopen as a bed and breakfast in the future.

“Unfortunately, with just three rooms there isn’t any wiggle room to hire someone to help out. There is only so much money one can make,” he said.

Additional reporting by Carol Sorgen.