The Fairbanks House: ‘We’re in the business of making memories’
“We aren’t in the lodging business; we’re in the business of making memories,” expounded Theresa Hamilton, current president of the local bed-and-breakfast association and innkeeper at The Fairbanks House, 227 South Seventh Street, in Fernandina Beach.
She and husband Bill Hamilton have been proprietors and innkeepers of the historic gem for nearly 20 years. The couple moved here from Baltimore in 1997 to take over the B & B from a previous owner.
Bill had managed a construction business while Theresa had been in sales, but the couple was looking for a small business they could run together. After researching for more than 10 years the idea of owning a B & B and hunting for property from Wilmington, N.C. to Key West, they chose the Fairbanks House.
What appealed to them about the property was the history of the house as well as the different types of B & B experiences the property had to offer.
The Italianate house with its distinctive squared bay windows and square tower was designed by New York architect Robert Schuyler for George Rainsford Fairbanks, a prominent figure in 19th-century Florida. Fairbanks came to Fernandina in 1880 at the invitation of David Yulee to become editor of the local paper, The Florida Mirror – a predecessor to the News-Leader.
Though originally from New York, Fairbanks spent most of his adult life in Florida. Prior to his arrival in Fernandina, he had been an attorney, a citrus magnate, a politician and an officer in the Confederacy. He also wrote numerous books about Florida history and helped found the state historical society.
The house was built to accommodate his family of nine children. At 8,000 square feet, the main house has four floors and a basement, the latter a rarity in Florida construction.
As a B & B, The Fairbanks House offers nine guest rooms and three cottages. Some of the rooms have kitchenettes for guests who desire a longer stay. Two of the rooms sleep up to five people, including a fourth floor suite that is often used for “girls-just-want-to-have-fun” reunions.
A formal dining room meets the needs of guests who come to mingle, while tables-for-two on the porch appeal to honeymooners and others who want more privacy.
To his job as innkeeper, Bill brought skills useful in the upkeep of the now 132-year-old property. Theresa arrived with marketing skills for enticing and entertaining guests. However, she is fond of saying the most important attribute both brought to their new venture was “a big ol’ smile and a good attitude.”
Despite their research, there would be surprises.
Their predecessor, who converted the property to a B & B in 1994, had been more in the role of overseer rather than “hands-on” innkeeper.
“There was a cook under the previous management and I thought she came with the package,” recalled Theresa.
That would have been the case except the cook quit before the new owners arrived. Initially, Theresa relied on catering services, but gradually felt confident taking over in the kitchen.
The Hamiltons are grateful that earlier efforts to preserve the house by turning it into apartments in the 1980s left some structural details that could easily have been destroyed in the process.
For instance, original pocket doors to the living room, although dysfunctional for years, had been enclosed in a wall rather than removed. Updating the property with private baths and kitchenettes made it ideal for later conversion to a B & B.
The Hamiltons take their role as “current caretakers” of the historic property seriously. One of their criteria in searching for a B & B was to find a property with historical significance in need of preservation.
The obvious advantage of running a B & B is getting to meet lots of interesting people, but the extent of the behind-the-scenes responsibilities might surprise some.
“We do the same things as anybody else in running a home, only we are doing it for others all day,” said Theresa.
It’s a 24/7 lifestyle. The Hamiltons choose to stay open Thanksgiving and Christmas during which they share traditional holiday meals with guests.
She looks forward to the annual B & B Christmas cookie tour as a way to interact more with the local community. “We innkeepers don’t get to participate in the community as much as we’d like to,” she said.
They were innkeepers for eight years before they took a real vacation of their own. Among their returning guests is a couple from England with whom they have bonded. The two couples have since taken seven European vacations together.
Other returning guests include a group who met while staying at the inn during consecutive Concours d’Elegance events. The Hamiltons added a costume party to the group’s annual gathering.
“One year they went out to dinner as Disney characters. Another year they were all movie stars,” recalled Theresa. “They seem to have a lot of fun with it.”
Other guests have included a wedding planner from Tuscany who eloped to The Fairbanks House rather than plan his own wedding. The Hamiltons are happy to accommodate elopements and honeymoons but avoid hosting weddings or other formal functions.
Bill explained, “We decided early on that we wanted guests who actively selected our B & B as a destination for themselves, not because someone else chose the site for a group function.”
The exception is gatherings of friends who choose one of the suites to celebrate a birthday or a reunion.
Couples have gotten into arguments while staying at the inn, but it has been rare. Theresa noted that innkeepers need to be prepared for the tendency for people on vacation to “drink too much wine,” especially when the inn is located within walking distance of downtown bars and restaurants. More often than not, the consequences are harmless.
A typical issue is that guests who imbibe often can’t figure out how to work the Jacuzzi, but other than the occasional appeal to jump-start a Jacuzzi, they are rarely disturbed by late night calls.
A memorable exception was a couple that panicked in the middle of the night when the wife found a tick attached. Urban dwellers that had most likely encountered their first tick on a visit to Fort Clinch, they wanted to know whether to go to the emergency room. The Hamiltons provided advice and supplies to handle tick removal on their own.
At the other extreme, they woke one morning to find a couple’s room key and a note at the front desk telling them the husband had a heart attack and his wife had driven him to the hospital without waking them.
The Hamiltons manage their B & B with two full-time staff who help with all aspects of the operation, from serving to housecleaning to gardening. In slow times staff use their individual talents for special projects like sewing or refinishing furniture.
While staff responsibilities are designed to overlap, the Hamiltons have found it best for their partnership to have well-established boundaries.
“We have an expression ‘not in my end of the kitchen,’” Theresa said.
The expression isn’t limited to kitchen duties but applies to all facets of the operation. The division of labor determines who has the final say in which decisions. Her “end of the kitchen” includes entertaining, marketing and gardening. His is the financial end, including maintenance and repairs.
They cite mutual respect and a sense of humor as essential ingredients for couples who work together. Theresa shared, “If I hadn’t been married to him, I would have asked him to go into business with me.”
As president of the local bed-and-breakfast association, Theresa offers insight on trends like Airbnb and similar online accommodation services.
“The majority of us feel everybody should be playing by the same rules,” she said and explained that private homeowners offering lodging services currently do not have to meet the same zoning laws, legal regulations and health inspections as B & B establishments.
As other local B & B owners have commented, she sees no direct impact on her business because those services are aimed at a different kind of traveler. However, she is concerned that lack of regulation of private homeowners who rent to travelers drives down the supply of long-term rentals in a community and thus impacts affordable housing available for residents.
While the trend may not contribute to a decline in reservations at her B & B, she pointed out, “It does affect where my employees can afford to live, and that affects me.”
Beyond the historical significance of The Fairbanks House and its unusual architecture, a memorable stay includes evening hors d’oeuvres, a pool and ample parking with recharging stations for electrical cars.
For more information, call 277-0500 or visit www.fairbankshouse.com.