What if you had the nerve to follow your dream? To bow out of the rat race – maybe move to a deserted island or an obscure foreign country. Too drastic? Perhaps a move to the the pastoral countryside then. Or how ‘bout the beach? Mmmmm…. Memories of sunny, sandy, carefree days stream back and suddenly you remember that wonderful couple who ran that lovely bed and breakfast you visited. Nice people, they were. And they looked so happy!
Perhaps you could be, too.
Richard and Harriett Samuelson were studying fine arts and living in the Chelsea section of Manhattan when a burglar broke into their loft apartment. “He didn’t think anyone was home,” recalls Richard. “I think Harriett scared him as much as he scared her, but that’s when we decided to leave the city.”
It was the summer of 1976 when the Samuelsons were visiting friends vacationing in Cape May. Harriett had been here before on painting holidays. Dining on the porch of the Mad Batter restaurant, an old friend happened by. When talk turned to the recent New York “incident,” the friend suggested they buy the old inn next door to the Mad Batter restaurant. The Samuelson’s hadn’t even noticed it was for sale.
“We checked on it the next morning, but the owner told us it had sold the day before,” Richard remembers. “We felt it wasn’t meant to be and we went home to New York.”
Three months later, the same friend was sitting in the Samuelson’s kitchen and told them the new owner had “reneged” on the first month’s mortgage payment. The old house was for sale again.
According to Richard, the owner was desperate to sell. He had been running the inn as a “flophouse,” the kind where “anything goes” and was now in trouble with the law. Originally listed for $55,000, owner jumped on the $40,000 offered by the Samuelsons.
The mid- to late-1970s saw the beginning of a transition in Cape May. Traditional seaside guest houses being turned into bed and breakfast inns. The City of Cape May’s designation as a National Historic Landmark town in 1976 had a lot to do with the change. And the Samuelson’s were in on the ground floor. Literally.
For decades, guest houses in Cape May were painted a traditional white but in-depth research by new bed and breakfast owners into the Victorian era found houses in the late 1800s were actually painted in more than one color, many in pastel shades, and some quite vibrant. Richard was one of the very first in town to paint his “Poor Richard’s Inn” using the multi-color scheme. “I think I was the first to use bold colors incorporating four or five shades into the design,” Richard says. “I did the panting myself. I think a lot of people in town laughed at me when I tested the colors on the outside first before finally painting the inn.”
“When we first bought the inn, Harriett and I thought it was a special house. A diamond in the rough. It has a striking façade with intricate gingerbread trim and architectural details.
Built in 1882 as the private residence of a Cape May hotel owner, the inn offers both rooms and apartments furnished with antiques of an “eclectic” nature. Says Richard, there are two kinds of renovation for historic buildings like Poor Richard’s Inn – the kind with “big buck overhauls” and the “step-by-step” kind.
Richard says his was the latter and even today is still a “work in progress.” “We had what was needed in the beginning – naiveté and guts. We were young, naïve, impressionable and enormously enamored with the town,” Richard told CapeMay.com. “And we had the energy that the new bed and breakfast industry brought with it. The season was shorter then, prices and expectations were lower and we were less business-like. Even though it was like being on duty twenty-four hours a day and we lived in very cramped quarters, those first years were ‘happening’.”
Then came a son. Cramped quarters soon became completely incommodious and they had to move out of the inn. With the birth of their second son, they moved to the Borough of Cape May Point – only two miles from the inn. “There comes a time in every innkeeper’s life where they face the dilemma of no privacy or space versus the love and need to be at the inn all the time.
There’s also the problem of being able to afford another house and salaries for those taking your place at the inn. It wasn’t an easy decision for us,” says Richard.
Today at age 53, after a divorce and twenty-five years as an innkeeper, Richard feels the bed and breakfast business in Cape May has “leveled off into an industry.”
“The bed and breakfast variety of style, hospitality, ambiance and pride of service is now suffering from the burden of high mortgages. And there’s more to give up today,” he says. “We were simply blind men in the dark.”
The Felicettis may not agree.
His background was in foreign service. He worked for the federal government, investigating export control law security. After receiving his law degree, Frank opened his own practice in Washington, D.C. His wife Connie had her master’s degree in biology. She worked in research. They had two sons, eventually moving back to their home town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania to be closer to their parents, Frank continuing his law practice and Connie working towards a second master’s degree.
Twenty-years later, Frank called it quits.“I needed a change,” Frank told CapeMay.com. “I was tired of the practice. I did small town law and it was draining.” For years, the Felicettis stayed in bed and breakfast inns during vacations in North Carolina. When it came time to make that all-important decision about what to do next, Frank decided they would open their own inn.
As Richard Samuelson noted, giving up any successful career and subsequent lifestyle is difficult. Some might find such a decision too drastic, too frightening. Frank didn’t. “I’d had it,” he said. Of course, mid-life career changes and subsequent moving can cost a lot of money and Frank and Connie didn’t plunge in haphazardly.
They attended an innkeeping seminar in Vermont and worked with an innkeeping consulting firm researching the business. Interestingly, they had never heard of Cape May when the consulting firm suggested
the Victorian seaside town would be an ideal location to fulfill Frank’s dream.
“We first visited Cape May on a rainy February day,” remembers Connie. “We rode the trolley and took a house tour. Then we came back on a busy July weekend. I guess you could say we saw both sides of the town.”
There were three priorities the Felicetti’s considered when making the move decision. They wanted to be about two hours from Pennsylvania where their parents still lived and they wanted the area to be economically feasible and strong. And they wanted to be near the water. “We also wanted to be near Delaware where one of our sons lives,” Connie says. “So we drew a circle on a map. Cape May fell right in between.”
It was February of 1993, when Connie and Frank, both at age 50, opened the doors of the established John F. Craig House to guests of their own.
Built in 1866, the house on historic Columbia Avenue offered eight air-conditioned guest rooms with private baths, full breakfast and afternoon tea service. Frank and Connie decided they would have to live at the inn to better accommodate their guests’ needs.
“It was scary in the beginning,” admits Connie. “But at that very first breakfast, Frank received applause for his cooking. It was a wonderful feeling. And it affirmed our decision to run a bed and breakfast in a nice
Frank does the cooking, Connie the baking. And though Connie laughingly calls it “Frank’s fault” they must feed a small army twice daily, and – like the Samuelsons – are living in two small rooms at the rear of the inn, coping continually with “live-in company” with little time off for themselves, Connie confesses she loves running the bed and breakfast. “I love the guests,” she says. “The whole bed and breakfast concept is one of hospitality and intimacy. We are very service-oriented here and offer a concierge service. I iron for the guests and make dinner reservations. I like to talk to the guests at the breakfast table to find out what their interests are so I can offer advice on things to do and see in Cape May. I think that’s why people come to bed and breakfasts in the first place. Live-in and helpful owners create bonds with their guests and that’s why people keep coming back.”
Patty Carnes came to the innkeeping business in a rather round about way. She says she was “a house mom” busily raising five children in Collingswood, New Jersey. It was her husband Harry who wanted to buy an inn. Along with two partners, he planned to continue his medical practice and run a bed and breakfast establishment. The partners bought West Cape May’s Wilbraham Mansion in June of 1992. Harry promptly bought out the other two. Patty was already 58 years old.
Patty says it didn’t take Harry very long to sound an alarm for help. “It takes a lot of work to run an inn,” Patty told CapeMay.com. “So I bought a condominium in Cape May and went to work.”
The Wilbraham boasts ten bedrooms, 2 dining rooms and a large indoor swimming pool, the only B&B with one of those in Cape May. Originally an 1840s farmhouse, by the 1990s the house was in dire need of restoration.
“It was in bad shape,” Patty recalls. “Some of the rooms had silver foil wallpaper, the roof needed fixing, there was rotten siding, and the building desperately needed to be painted. It was almost overwhelming.”
Patty says it was her good friend Sissy who helped her renovate the rooms – one at a time. “I remember we would move furniture out of one room on a Sunday, work all week on the room, and move the furniture back in for Friday’s rental,” laughs Patty now. “It took us three years to finish the restoration.”
Patty calls on her household management skills – she’s been married for forty-six years – as a guide to running the inn though she admits it’s a lot more “demanding.” Working with only a staff of three “very good” employees, Patty says she often goes home to bed after serving afternoon tea.
“Hospitality is the largest part of running an inn,” Patty says. “It’s very demanding. There are all kinds of questions to answer, breakfast and tea to serve.”
Though she initially called herself “insane” when asked why she runs the inn almost single-handedly at age 67, she’s quick to tell of the “special place” the inn holds in her heart.
“It’s like another child,” she smiles. “You put a lot of yourself into it, but you get even more out of it.”
Are you considering making the move?
CapeMay.com asked these innkeepers for their advice to those contemplating the transition from guest to host.
Patty Carnes cautions all who have said, “I’ve always wanted to do this!” to ask themselves first if they’re handy around the house. “It’s all your responsibility. If a toilet gets clogged you better be good with a plunger because you can’t always get someone else to fix it.” She adds that a husband and wife “team” make the best bed and breakfast owners, but warns one of them better be a “jack-of-all trades.”
The Felicettis say it is important to know yourself before getting into the hospitality business. “You must like to serve people,” warns Connie. “You must make sure the guests are enjoying themselves. Guests that are always there. It’s like having company all the time. You must really enjoy people.”
Richard Samuelson told CapeMay.com the most important element a prospective innkeeper should look at is location. “You must find an area with a pre-established tourist trade. You don’t want to buy a pretty little inn off the beaten track nestled in the woods. You have to get your share of an existing market,” Richard says and with a smile adds, “Then multiply your estimate of the time and money it will take by at least three or four.”
One final note: During March the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in Cape May sponsored an “Inn-Deep Workshop” for those entrepreneurs who want to be own and operate bed and breakfast inns.
Award-winning journalist Jennifer Brownstone Kopp has been writing about Cape May’s historic buildings for over a decade. Her numerous articles and columns have appeared in the Cape May Star and Wave, The Herald, The Cape May Gazette and on CapeMay.com.