The Innkeeper's Tales

How I Transformed an Historic House Into a Beautiful Boutique Hotel

by Sarah Shepherd
Sarah Shepherd in the parlor at Heights House. Photo by Fontana Lane.

When Team Fathom saw early images of Heights House Hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina, we collectively freaked out. Without much info to go on, we could tell this place was bound to be not only special but also gorgeous. While scheming how we could throw an incredible party in the space, we began fan-emailing co-owners Sarah and Jeff Shepherd and deemed Heights House a Best New Hotels for 2021. We asked Sarah to tell us about this great project and how falling in love with an historic house in her neighborhood led to her becoming an accidental hotelier.

It’s midnight on a Tuesday, and I’m staring at my phone wondering if I need to go back to the hotel. Are all the guests tucked into bed and soundly sleeping? Is the dishwasher making that loud cranking noise again? Did that bathroom faucet really stop leaking? The plumber didn’t seem too confident about it.

I had always wanted to own and operate my own small business. I mulled many ideas over the years and wrote numerous business plans. After walking by what is now Heights House hotel for almost a decade, the house itself is what really brought this current project to life.

Previously known as Montfort Hall, the house had mostly been a residential property since it was built in 1858. By the time my husband Jeff and I acquired it, the house was uninhabitable and needed a LOT of love to get it to a place where it could be a boutique hotel. At first it felt undoable, but eventually it became a dream I knew I was going to make a reality.

History in the making: when the house was Monfort Hall. Photo courtesy of Sarah Shepherd.
The pre-restoration facade. Photo courtesy of Sarah Shepherd.
The pre-restoration facade. Photo courtesy of Sarah Shepherd.
The house today. Photo by Jillian Knight.

At the time, I was working a 9-5 desk job in the tech industry. I learned a great deal working in corporate, but I knew it wasn’t meant for me. Of course I knew running my own business would be 24/7 versus 9-5, but it would be a different kind of rewarding.

Through all of this, I had support and help from Jeff, who, though still working his full-time day job, helps out wherever and whenever he can. It’s difficult to work with your spouse. Very fun at times, but very hard when you don’t agree and have completely different opinions. At one point, we could not agree on the exterior color of the house. It almost turned into a blood bath, but we made it out alive. (I won!) We also have very different strengths and weaknesses. I tend to take on the more creative decisions as well as our marketing and social media, while Jeff handles the repairs, SEO, and all technical systems like the internet, TVs, and security. We do have to make it a priority to make time to not talk about the business, but I’ll be honest: Disconnecting from your business is a difficult thing to do! (Any tips? Please send them my way.)

Jeff and Sarah Shepherd, pre-restorations. Photo by Adam Chapin Photography.
Jeff and Sarah Shepherd, pre-restorations. Photo by Adam Chapin Photography.

The entire project — from conceiving our business plan and purchasing the property to rezoning it from residential to commercial and doing the renovations — took about five years. The house is a national and local historic landmark located in an historic neighborhood, so there were a lot of hoops to jump through and organizations to get approvals from throughout. But there was never a moment I thought about backing out. As difficult as some of the processes were, like rezoning, I knew it was going to happen. We didn’t know anything about rezoning a property and were in for a complicated journey. The biggest challenge was getting the approval of all our neighbors within 500 feet and then presenting in front of our city council for a vote. Our hard work paid off, and we were approved (after eight months).

One of the best experiences was designing the interior. I worked in partnership with my friend and local Raleigh designer Bryan Costello. He used to run an art studio/boutique shop near our house, and we became fast friends before we even started the project. With his background in antique dealing and his ability to mix old and new, it was an easy decision to ask him if he wanted to do the hotel together. It was a very intimate, detailed process of finding the right modern and vintage pieces to make the space feel right. We didn’t want to distract guests too much from the original architectural details. We just wanted to amplify the space. The color palette was the first thing to nail down. We went with a muted, earthy scheme and used limewash paint everywhere. We didn’t want to take too much attention from the details of the original architecture. We also wanted the space to be calming and somewhat neutral for when we hosted private events and weddings.

The dining room before. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The dining room after. Photo by Natasha Johnson.
The library before. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The library after. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The parlor before. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The parlor before. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The parlor after. Photo by Natasha Johnson.
The parlor after. Photo by Natasha Johnson.
The parlor after. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The breakfast room. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
Winston Churchill's dresser, Sarah's great aunt's lamp. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.

We really scored with one particularly notable piece of furniture: a dresser from Winston Churchill’s private suite in the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. It lives in the dining room — one of the most used spaces in the house. On top of the dresser is a unique bronze woman lamp with crystals: an antique from my great aunt. Also in the dining room is an original Salvador Dali horse sketch that we reframed. Many other special pieces, like the dried floral vases, were created by local makers. It was important to us to support local artists where we could, and guests can see their work in the dried floral arrangements, artwork, rugs, and custom furniture like our bar, buffet, and reception desk.

We knew owning and operating a hotel was going to be an always-on job, but we didn’t realize that we would never be off. But seeing our vision come to life — to have actual, live people enjoying all our hard work — is more rewarding than I can put into words. A vision for a business venture is one thing, but the reality is another.

Since we opened, it has been very clear that nothing is set in stone, and how we operate the hotel changes day to day. I’m not just saying ”day to day” euphemistically. I mean it literally: We change how we operate every single day. It’s wild. One thing we changed rather quickly was our landscape sprinkler schedule after a morning yoga retreat on the lawn came with an unwelcome mid-asana shower.

One of the hardest things that I honestly didn’t think about until we were in the thick of it was this: Finding good, reliable help is HARD. During a pandemic? Even HARDER. Our current staff is amazing. They have become family. Finding people I trust with my hotel is priceless because we can’t do it all by ourselves. Building our team has had its challenges. Not everyone we have hired worked out. Our first housekeeping team wasn’t a good fit — a painful situation to the point of debating legal action. (Pro tip: Don’t hire a team through a third party.) But putting the time and effort into finding and hiring the right people never goes unrewarded.

The lobby. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
A bedroom. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
A bedroom. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The Honeymoon Suite before. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The Honeymoon Suite before. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The Honeymoon Suite after. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The Honeymoon Suite after. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.
The Honeymoon Suite after. Photo by Monica Slaney|photographie:fourseven.

On the flip side, one of the best things about being a hotelier that I knew but didn’t fully grasp the awesomeness of was that we’d meet pretty fabulous people from all over the world and from our very own city. Since opening, we’ve made so many friends. Maria and William from Argentina, our neighbors Josh and Cammy, clothing designer KidSuper, Isabella and Luca from L.A. The four large common spaces on the first floor — the library, dining room, parlor, and drawing room — are excellent spots to relax with tea or wine and make new friends. It’s been really interesting to see what type of guests our property attracts. I’d say 99 percent of guests want to have a conversation, learn about Raleigh, and hear more about us. And I say “friends” lightly, but I think they would all answer the phone if I called, which isn’t nothing.

Check-ins and breakfast are my favorite time to be at the hotel to meet and chat with our guests. The human interaction is definitely at the top of the list of best things about being a hotelier. I’ll never forget a breakfast with a team from Anthropologie in LA who were in town for a conference. They were so bright, cheerful, and genuinely happy to be staying with us. We talked about some of our favorite hotels across the world, what stands out to them when booking hotels, and the state of travel during these difficult times. It was special, and I know we’ll be welcoming them back to Heights House. I was glad to learn what considered when booking hotels — smaller boutique hotels versus large chains, historic properties with character, and family-owned and operated, with breakfast included — because that’s who we are!

Sarah. Photo by Fontana Lane.

When most folks think of hoteliers and owning a boutique hotel, they think of a very glamorous life. And some days are. Two weeks ago, a new catering partner dropped off delicious treats and champagne, and we spent the afternoon wine tasting with our staff for our Happiest Hour, the complimentary wine and cheese pairing that we offer daily in our first floor common spaces.

But then yesterday, I unclogged a very offensive toilet.

And in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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