Thursday, November 3, 2011

From a Bank to An Inn in 165 Years

By Katherine McIntyre

KINGSTON, ON—If it hadn’t been for a snowstorm on Highway 401, the building might now be derelict or torn down.

Weatherup Beare and Susan Shaw, a husband and wife team, were driving the 401 on a stormy night back in 2001. Alarmed by drifting snow, they took refuge in Kingston. And then says Shaw, “We bought a money pit.”

The couple had never been to Kingston, Ontario, knew nobody and nothing about its history. But when a for sale sign on the lonely building beckoned, something inside them clicked.

Back in 1846, this handsome limestone building at King and William Streets housed Kingston’s branch of the Bank of Montreal. Offices, tellers cages and the bank vault were located on its main floor, the manager’s family on its second floor and tellers on the third.

Since then the building has morphed from a bank to a men’s club with its own bowling alley and billiard room, to a private home, to an apartment.

Now the prestigious Frontenac Club Inn with fourteen bedrooms, a club-like great room, meeting rooms and a breakfast area, has replaced bowling alleys, tellers’ cages, a bank vault and tired apartments.

Their building was in its worn out apartment phase when Beare, with past experience as a full time school trustee, and Shaw in communications for a health care centre, took over. Their rationale, “It was time for a change, with their house paid off and two offspring in university.”

And a change it was! Three years in renovation, with everything needing upgrading or repair except their building’s solid limestone basement. They searched and found original architectural drawings in Ottawa’s archives and the name of its original architect, George Brown, who had also designed Kingston’s magnificent city hall. They tried to keep historical features such as a handsome walnut staircase and black and white tile floors in the entrance hall, golden hardwood floors and some interior limestone walls.

Capturing the essence of a men’s club, in their main lounge area, they included comfortable leather couches and in deep-set windows, chintz window seats. A bookcase with an eclectic choice of hard cover books has replaced a teller’s cage, and a coffee bar is in a former bank vault.

Shaw, with a deft hand at decorating, combines her sense of colour with historical features, travellers’ comfort and all the myriad details of running an inn. “It can be fun but a lot of work,” she comments.

Beare, in a navy apron, serves up a gourmet breakfast seven days a week and he adds, “Late arrivals, late for breakfast, staffing 365 days a year can be a drain on energy.

“Building a reputation is one way of attracting guests,” he adds. “We are lucky in Kingston being in the historic downtown on a quiet street, near Queen’s University, Royal Military College and one block from our waterfront. We get plenty of repeat customers. Word of mouth is a good but slow way to develop our type of business. Being included in a travel guide is an asset. Small weddings and meetings are an additional source of business and add to our reputation.”

And how do most new guests discover Frontenac Club Inn? “They find us through the Internet.”

But both agree that doing something different with their lives has been a big adventure and most of the time they are grateful for that snowstorm.

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