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Couple buys Lenox's historic Birchwood Inn

LENOX — It's the oldest house in Lenox, built 250 years ago for early settler Israel Dewey. It hosted the first town meeting on March 11, 1767, as the community was incorporated.

Now, the Birchwood Inn, open year-round with 11 guest rooms catering to guests seeking a "get away from it all" experience, is under new owners who plan modest updates while maintaining the traditional small-town New England appeal of the bed-and-breakfast at 7 Hubbard St. overlooking the historic district.

Following the retirement of Ellen Gutman Chenaux after nearly 17 years of owning what she calls "the venerable old lady on top of the hill," business and domestic partners Debbie Lancaster and Tom Johnson have just taken over as proprietors at the start of the hectic summer tourism season.

The couple, who met at work in a major St. Louis bank 15 years ago, were seeking a change from the 9-to-5 routine so they could work together "and do something fun until retirement," said Lancaster, 56, a London native who immigrated to the United States over 20 years ago, became an American citizen and raised a family with her now ex-husband.

She had been a computer programmer before landing a post in technology management at a St. Louis brokerage firm that was later acquired by a bank.

Johnson, 59, is a St. Louis native who taught school in the Ozarks of Missouri and worked as a carpenter before switching to information technology.

Having entertained large groups of family members at their home, the idea of owning an inn came naturally, Lancaster said. "Making other people happy makes us happy," she said. "It seems like a good fit for us."

Researching the possibilities, Johnson said that they came upon an online training course for prospective B&B owners. The consultant running the website presented the couple with a short list of viable properties in New England.

After first visiting Lenox in March 2015 to check out the Birchwood, the couple moved on to visit B&Bs on the south shore of Cape Cod as well as in Camden and Rockland, Maine.

"Tom couldn't get this inn out of his head, he had already remodeled it," Lancaster said. "To me, people who love culture would make great guests, rather than having people who wanted to be on the beach all day and bring back sand."

On their return visit to Lenox, they set their caps for the Birchwood. "We both felt at home in this inn," Lancaster said.

The transaction closed on June 23 for $1,660,000, with financing from Lee Bank, said Lancaster. The property had been listed for $1,895,000.

The business plan calls for boosting annual room occupancy to 40 percent from last year's 36 percent average. Her data indicates 38 percent is typical for B&Bs in the area, Lancaster said.

"With the improvements we'll make and the marketing we'll do, it won't be hard to get to the 40 percent level," Johnson said. He said the inn has been "financially viable" over the past three years. Lancaster described it as profitable.

Diving right in to the busiest season, their first-night guests included an eloping couple.

Lancaster and Johnson, who will live in the adjoining carriage house that also includes two guest rooms, credited the Birchwood's longtime assistant innkeeper, Becca Bliss Lilley, and housekeeper Karen Crandall, for a smooth transition.

Johnson acknowledged that they are novices not only as innkeepers but as Berkshire residents. "I can sing you most of 'Alice's Restaurant,' " he said cheerfully.

During a conversation at the inn, the pair voiced optimism that with a few decorating touchups and an enhanced marketing campaign for the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall, they can maintain a viable business as their final career move.

"The inn is beautiful, but it's time for some updates, a little modernization, freshening it up, a makeover room by room," Lancaster said. "But we're still going to stay very traditional. Our decorating tastes will be different from Ellen's, so we'll leave our mark on the inn that way."

As a concession to contemporary preferences, the inn has modern conveniences, including Wi-Fi and room TVs, as well as a big screen set in the library.

"We want to keep up with the world," Johnson said.

They're also counting on a steady flow of returning guests, some of whom book their summer stays a year ahead of time. Catering to "affinity groups" such as writers seeking a retreat is another idea to help fill the inn during the off-season.

For this summer, bookings are strong with most weekends sold out — "it's like drinking from a fire hose," Johnson observed. Three-night minimums remain in place for the prime season, but will revert to two nights at the end of October.

Rates per night through fall foliage range from $239 to $379. All 11 rooms are named for previous owners of the house.

The new team hopes the community will consider using the inn to accommodate guests for family events and gatherings.

The Birchwood has changed hands frequently, and was used as a tavern starting in 1798. Later, as a private home, it was expanded and renovated by several different owners.

After 68 years of ownership by Florine and Richard Dana, it was converted to an inn in 1953, then served as a home for World War II veterans during the 1960s and 1970s. It became a full-fledged B&B in 1981 and went through three ownerships before Chenaux purchased it in February 1999.

"I just want to enjoy the fruits of my labor," she has said. In a published letter, Chenaux wished fellow innkeepers continued success and offered Lancaster and Johnson "the greatest of luck, and may you and the inn soar to even greater heights!"

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

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