If the walls at the Colonial Inn could talk, they would likely be gushing over all the changes, renovations and the anticipation of once again being the center jewel of King Street in Hillsborough. If the floors could talk, they might ask how anyone can walk as fast as Elise Tyler, the central figure in saving the more than 250-year-old landmark.
“I kind of had my eyes on this building since 2010,” Tyler said from behind her face mask and above the din of hammering, an electric sander, a power saw and — surprisingly — a radio playing rock music. “I had moved down to North Carolina. My best friend was working at Tupelo’s (now Antonia’s). I didn’t have any friends and I sat at Tupelo’s and I looked up the street to the Colonial Inn. I’m like every other person around here and I would peek in the windows of the Inn. I looked in and thought, ‘Somebody needs to do something with this building.’ Fast forward seven years, I started working for a commercial construction company that partnered with a structural engineer. Incidentally, that structural engineer is now one of the majority stakeholders. I just happened to be walking by and they were nailing up the ‘for sale’ sign. I asked if they minded if I walked through and they were, like, ‘absolutely not!’ I walked through. That was July 13, 2017. I walked out of this building and I thought, ‘You know, if I die tomorrow, I will have walked through the Colonial Inn.’ I brought the structural engineer through and he was super-fun. He was upstairs and was jumping on the floor and he said, ‘I think we can do this.’ I thought, ‘Is that your professional opinion?’ (Laughs). He had some friends who wanted to be investors. We pitched it, we created a plan. We’ve been doing it ever since. We made the official purchase in January 2018, and we’ve literally been working to make it happen since that day.”
A quick tour of the 17,300-sqare-foot site reveals a lot has been happening. Fireplace mantles, baseboards and door frames are being primed and painted. Spots and lines of spackling have been smoothed and sanded, and now await paint. The historic windows have been removed, restored, and placed back — fully operations — into their original setting. Floors are level and the humps removed. Chic light fixtures hang, offering a hint of the eventual decor. Plush furniture sits out of place and covered with plastic sheets.
“We hope to have construction complete by the end of August,” Tyler says. “It’s a question of what’s going to be happening with COVID-19. The truth of the matter is we have one shot to do the grand opening, and I want it to be an entire weekend — Thursday, Friday, Saturday. So, we’re OK with kicking the opening down the road a month. Maybe two months. It needs to be right. We’ll know when it’s right. The last thing we want to do is pitch a tent in the courtyard and then have people stand outside to be brought through in pods of 10. That sounds like hell in August. To be honest, and I don’t want this to sound wrong, but the virus has has helped us with loan deferment. With construction delays, we would already have had needed some room to wiggle, and the virus has essentially given us that room. So, the pressure is not really on us right now. It’s letting us be thoughtful about our timing and not push it or force it.”
The construction loan Tyler mentioned was for almost $5 million. The total cost, including purchasing, the construction costs, inspections and all, drops in at close to $8 million.
“When we were bidding to try purchase the property, there was a couple from New York that came down and they were trying to buy it as well. Their plan was to flip it. How do you flip this place?”
Despite the imposing price tag, the size of the project, and the rush to wrap up construction by the end of next month, Tyler said she has absolutely zero regrets.
“Every single day that I wake up and think about this project, or wake up in the middle of the night, or go to bed thinking about it,” she said. “No lack of passion. There’s no lack of energy. It’s just the right players, the right people, everything has been almost cosmic about this project. It’s been a blast. I have enjoyed every challenge. We really have some fun times putting this thing together, exploring options, finding people to do the projects, like the bar facade. We had a father and son woodworking team. They are true craftsmen. Just incredible. They took 150-year-old wood and 200-year-old wood to make the bar facade. Just having these people who all really start caring about the building. It’s been really cool.”
One of the key features of Colonial Inn when it reopens, is the bar, which is in the oldest part of the building.
“There are elements behind one of the walls that are believed to be from the 1700’s, based on the accounts of previous owners,” Tyler said. “When the plaster and lathe was taken down there were these beautiful oak beams with ax marks, hand-made nails. They’re spectacular.”
What’s immediately evident is Tyler’s enthusiasm for the Inn, whether it’s uncovering unexpected architectural features or coming to terms with frustrating changes in plans.
“I had guys literally chipping away by hand the plaster off the brick,” Tyler said. “I was going to leave them all exposed. But the state came in and said ‘No, you’re not.’ That was a rough day for me. It was because that’s not the way the building was done. I had local historian Amanda Boyd, who is writing a book about the Colonial Inn, search for examples of buildings of a similar age with exposed brick. She could find none.”
Tyler’s excitement for the building’s renovation is equalled by her admiration for the people doing the work.
“Everyone working on this project is working in less-than ideal conditions,” she said. “Everything about this structure is challenging. There are massive beams in random places, everything was piled onto one structure after another. Nothing went away, which is awesome — it was all fairly well preserved — but also everything is just a little wonky. It’s kind of some of the historic charm.”
Tyler describes the decor of the planned bar as a “very cool and swanky kind of lounge.” It will have plush wingback chairs and brass cocktail holders. The metal is antique brass and will be threaded throughout the interior design.
The bar will be open every day and open to the public.
“A huge initiative that we have is to allow it to be accessible for the community,” Tyler said. “The big message to everyone, is to answer the question, ‘Is it a restaurant?’ No, we will not be a full-scale restaurant. What we will have is a bar that is opened to the public with food. The other thing we’re going to do is host weekly events that will be Sunday brunch, or Sunday dinner. Or Thursday dinner. We’re going to elevate our catering partners so they can show off their talents, try something new and different. They’ll have something steady in terms of an income that’s not on a wedding night. So, they’re thrilled. We can invite people in to sit down and enjoy it. Enjoy the food and experience the Inn.”
The Colonial Inn’s owners also hope to incorporate the Hillsborough arts community and support local businesses.
Tyler begins marching through the site, pointing out the Inn’s features while deftly stepping over extension cords, scrap pieces of wood and adjusting her body to avoid bumping into workers.
Just inside the front entrance is what was once a phone booth.
“I was wondering, ‘what the heck I’m going to do with it,’” Tyler said. “I got my beautiful phone booth team. What we’re going to do is three levels of glass shelving and we’re going to do ‘phone booth takeovers’ for local businesses that we partner closely with, and they can bring whatever they want for a display to promote their business.”
She starts up the stairs, drawing attention to another of the Inn’s elaborate woodworking details.
“This is one of the original finials,” she said. “You can see where there’s a cut here where this piece fell off.”
Tyler pointed to the unpainted wood detail that had been perfectly recreated and attached. “This had been sitting in my house for two years. Instead of creating a brand new one — which would have been way easier — the wood working guys created that piece to finish it out and put it back on. Just like I said before, we have the coolest people working on this place. Really pouring themselves into this project. That’s 100 percent what you need to pull this thing off,” she said.
The restored Colonial Inn will be a 28-room boutique hotel. There are seven rooms on the second level of the main building. All of the design is neo-classical, comfortable, warm and accommodating.
Each of the rooms are different sizes and sometimes odd shapes. There are seven different interior room designs, so not everything will look or feel the same.
“My favorite space on the property, without any doubt, is this porch,” Tyler said, as she stepped onto the Colonial Inn’s most notable and recognizable feature. “The porch was built right before 1900 and you can tell. It’s solid as a rock. It’s amazing. You can hear the sounds, the music coming from the courthouse when there are events. The diamond shapes in the balcony railing were incorporated into the Colonial Inn logo. We call it the Colonial Inn North Star. You’ll see a lot of those diamonds throughout.”
Also on the second floor is the honeymoon suite, which has a private entrance, living room space, a bar cart with drinks, a nice TV, and a gorgeous upholstered sectional sofa. The bedroom will have beautiful fixtures and floating night stands.
“And then there’s the jacuzzi room, which has a jacuzzi tub and a TV. It’s a self-heating jacuzzi tub, so it’s not going to get cold on you no matter how long you stay in it,” she said. “It also has bluetooth speakers. You name it, it has it.”
Between the two buildings is a courtyard that will be layered in with southern flora and fauna chosen by local landscape architect Christina King. The garden will look different dependent on the season.
A paved path runs at the rear of the annex building on the back of the property to the service parking area for the caterers to use so they can bring in all their equipment and supplies.
There is also a laundry room onsite.
Back in the main building, Tyler stepped into a small room just outside the event space. Several electrical boxes are installed on the wall. A rainbow of colorful wires runs above the boxes. The whole room reveals the complicated steps taken to bring the nearly three-centuries-old building into the current one.
The event space will seat about 125 people. Large Mirrors have been installed across from each other to create an illusion of an endless room. The room could be where people have their wedding ceremony, bridal parties and receptions.
“The 24”x48” flooring tile has amber veining that picks up on the color of the wood in the lobby and bar area,” Tyler said. “Basically, we wanted something that was very bright and very beautiful, but allowed for a customizable space. This space can be whatever someone needs it to be.”
In the middle of another room sits a large, ornate piece of furniture. “This desk was here when the previous owners bought the Inn,” she said. “The old owner tried to move it out, but couldn’t.”
In order to get it into the room that will be Tyler’s office they had to remove two door frames. “Now that it’s there, it might not ever leave.”
Across from Tyler’s office, in another small room, sits the original Colonial Inn sign, faded and weak from many, many years exposed to the elements. Even if the walls could talk, that sign might have even more to say. Unfortunately, the sign is too brittle to be saved.
“The new sign will have a horizontal orientation,” Tyler said. “It will have the new logo, but we will keep the ‘Since 1759’ because, gosh darn it, we believe it! We’re going to put it right back. We had the metal frame restored. It will look a little different, but not by much.”
Back in what will be the bar, Tyler reflects on what drew her to this project, which is — believe it or not — her first renovation, and the experience she hopes people will have when they stay at the Inn.
“I grew up in a home that is more than 300 years old,” she said. “I grew up in Massachusetts in an absolutely gorgeous area and Hillsborough is the closest thing to Cape Cod that I have found. I fell in love when I moved down here in 2010, and it’s had this special place in my heart. It felt like home. I know a lot of people who feel like that. The true home hospitality is what we want to create here. Not the stodgy white-glove, elitist crap you deal with. The way I talk about it is we don’t want it to be like you’re going to your house. At your house you have to do the dishes, you have to make food and you gotta do projects. We want it to be like your mom’s house or grandma’s house where you get there and she’s got the food you like, the bed’s turned down, she’s got your pillow fluffed, your favorite stuffed animal and a drink waiting for you. That’s what we want. That’s very much going to be the focus of our service. We’ve got an incredible staff who all, basically, found me. I did not put out one ad. We’re small, but the right people presented themselves and I have had a very easy hiring process so far. What we’re looking for from them is anticipatory service. We’re thinking about you before you’re thinking about what you need. So we’re doing these care-calls that are three to five days before you arrive. What temperature do you want your room set? Do you want a firm or soft mattress? We’ve got mattresses that accommodate firm or soft. Extra towels, extra pillows. Are you celebrating anything? That’s what people can expect when they are staying with us. Nope, never done anything like this before. Hopefully we’ll do it right the first time. Everyone’s like ‘what are you going to do next?’ And I’m going to be sitting in that office for the next 35 years!”
Tyler’s favorite find during the renovation is a horseshoe that was found by one of the workers a few weeks ago in the back area.
“How long has this been sitting in this dirt? Who was out here? What were they doing? We know the incredible story of Sarah Stroud who saved the Inn during the Civil War, when she waved her husband’s Masonic apron from the balcony. And then they stationed Union troops on each door to save the Inn from being pillaged and burned down. You just think. Who knows what that horseshoe is from?” she said.
“The sheer historic volume of this place … it sits with you when you’re in this building,” Tyler said. “The passion of the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I check in every day with all of the subcontractors. The level of care that people put into this place. I might not know what I’m doing, but John knows what he’s doing. José knows what he’s doing. Carter knows what he’s doing. So, I’m relying on them to help get through it. If I can help them make decisions, and problem solve and come up with solutions. I tell my kids — who are in there sanding my desk right now — to not bring me a problem without thinking of a couple of solutions, and then we can talk about it. I literally have said that to a couple of the people working onsite. They’ve been awesome. I don’t think anyone knew what they were doing when they decided to take on this project. There were some subcontractors that turned it down. It was too complicated. Too hard. Too much.”
Tyler said she, her husband and the rest of her family believe in the Colonial Inn and the work they’re doing. She said her family is there every day, working. It’s a family affair and a project that Tyler said she never feels the need to escape.
“This place is my escape,” she said.
Tyler also said the place is magnetic.
“The people who message me and write on our Facebook page and interact with us, are just so much fuel for us,” Tyler said. “They say ‘I remember when,’ or ‘I cannot wait to see what you’re doing.’ That’s just pure gas for me. When I hear people talk about their memories at the Inn and they can’t wait to celebrate again. There’s just something about it. It’s definitely been challenging, but it’s worth it. One hundred-fold. It’s been an absolute joy and an honor to work on this structure. So many people that we’ve talked with jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it and people still tell me that every day. I’m just grateful to be a part of it."