The Queen of the Bay Rules Once Again
By Mark Shaffer
If Frank and Amy Lesesne had to choose a theme song for their inn, Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to be Crazy” seems appropriate. Friends and family wondered if they’d gone insane (rhymes with Lesesne) when they decided to flee successful careers in Atlanta and start a new life on the Carolina coast. But when they set their sights on transforming this storied 18th century tabby behemoth into a luxury inn, well…
“At that point people thought we were nuts,” says Frank. The Lesesnes knew better. There was a method to their madness, and in it, a means to an end – if it all worked out.
“We chose Beaufort first,” says Amy. “We knew this was where we wanted to be.”
There was just one problem with starting over in Beaufort and that was how to go about doing it. The hospitality industry was their main interest (Amy’s a former flight attendant) but they also researched the area to see if they could come up with another business strategy to fill some empty niche in the community. Nothing they came up with had much appeal in the long run.
“So, it was back to an inn,” says Amy. “It was a better fit for our personalities.”
They hired a consultant and began looking at established properties in the historic district and made an offer on one.
“That did not work out,” says Frank.
They kept looking and in due course their real estate agent introduced them to 1103 Bay Street. One glance at the view of the river from the top of the house was all it took.
“We were hooked,” he says.
THE GRAND DAME
There is nothing dainty about the house known as the Queen of the Bay. She has dominated the corner of Bay and Newcastle Streets for approximately two and a half of Beaufort’s three centuries. She is something of a mystery, though. The exact circumstances of her origins are murky, but it’s most likely she was born out of the cotton fortune of the Elliott family in the mid to late 18th century. The Department of the Interior dated the house at 1770 when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The most prominent Elliott linked to the house was William Elliott III, a Harvard-educated politician, planter, sportsman and author who entertained the Marquis de Lafayette in the house as mayor of Beaufort in 1825. Many years later – and despite being anti-secession – Elliott blew town in the “Great Skedaddle” of November 7, 1861 as the Union Army marched up from Port Royal. Like many of Beaufort’s stately homes and churches, 1103 Bay would spend the rest of the war as a Union Hospital. But that’s just a tiny chapter of this lady’s tale.
Following the war the house passed briefly back into the Elliott family before being auctioned to settle a judgment against William’s son, Thomas Rhett Smith Elliott, in 1872. The winning bid was $3000. For the remainder of the 19th century, the house passed from owner to owner and by the onset of 1891 it had become home to the infamous Ribaut Social Club.
In “Tales of Beaufort” Nell S. Graydon writes that the R.S.C. “…counted among its members officers of various ships touching port. Like a miniature Monte Carlo, the club was complete with bar, roulette wheel and numerous other gambling devices. It was a far cry from the gracious, cultured people whose home it had been for generations.”
The shenanigans of the R.S.C. proved short lived. On March 30, 1891 Rear Admiral Lester Beardslee closed a deal on the property for $4,000. Beardslee, a highly decorated and fascinating historical figure in his own right, commanded the Port Royal Naval Station from 1891 to 1894. He called his new home The Anchorage and the house that sits on the corner of Bay and Newcastle today remains his legacy.
The April 3, 1902 issue of the Beaufort Gazette reported, “The renovation of the old tabby Clubhouse on the opposite corner from the Sea Island Hotel by Admiral Beardslee for a handsome mansion is progressing, and soon it will be made an imposing residence. Only a shell of the old building is being preserved, and entire new house walls are being built inside. The mansion will be the finest and most elegant in town.”
Beardslee spared no expense. The final tab came to $80,000, a fortune at the time. He brought in master craftsmen to refit the old house as he would a ship, shoring it up with oak from fine northern mills, adding the massive Corinthian columns and a rear wing with Beaufort’s first elevator.
The Admiral loved a libation. His wife, however, did not approve. But the old naval tactician had a plan. While the house was refitted he shipped her off on a lengthy shopping trip abroad to furnish the house. While she was gone he had a number of secret compartments installed. During another renovation a century later it’s rumored that workers discovered – and drank – some of the Admiral’s secret stash of Irish Whisky.
By the time the Lesesnes bought the property in 2014 the Anchorage had passed through many more owners, narrowly missed a date with a demolition crew and undergone yet another extensive structural renovation. The old girl was ready for a fresh start.
“The house had great bones and was in phenomenal shape when we bought it,” says Amy. “We brought a preservationist in from Charleston and he was shocked at what great condition it was in.”
“Our consultant told us that we had a great property,” says Frank. “Our real challenge was not to mess it up.”
The first major hurdle was the plumbing. “There were only two bathrooms in the whole entire place,” says Amy. “Two!”
The Lesesnes hired local architect Cooter Ramsey and interior designer Michelle Prentice and went to work. The idea was to preserve the historic integrity of the house while upgrading the old gal’s features and amenities for 21st Century clientele in search of an indulgent getaway. Those upgrades include a full commercial kitchen and elevator, a house wide sprinkler system, 13 luxury suites with full baths in the main house and the addition of a cottage with two more suites bordering Newcastle Street. But the shining jewel in the Queen’s refurbished crown is the expansive fourth floor deck and its unparalleled panorama.
“It’s the best view in all of Beaufort,” says Amy. “Had it not been approved, that would’ve been a deal breaker.”
“Both the city and Historic Beaufort Foundation wanted to see this thing done,” says Frank. There were some compromises along the way, but for the most part the Lesesnes managed to navigate the treacherous currents of historic renovation without major incident. “I think we got the right balance,” says Frank, “but it was a lot of work.”
The balance Frank’s talking about is simple. The house might be 250 years old but it still feels vibrant, relaxed and comfortable. There’s no stuffiness here. It’s not allowed. And Amy’s sense of minimalism is evident in the décor. The rooms aren’t cluttered with the ubiquitous antiques one expects in an historic inn. The furnishings are an eclectic and interesting mix of pieces that compliment the space even when they seem improbable.
The common areas (including 1500 square feet of porch space) are all unique and inviting. The original paintings on the walls are all by three area artists with three distinctive styles – Elena Madden, Lana Hefner and Michael Griffin. All are available for purchase.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Running an inn isn’t as glamorous as you might think. Like any part of the hospitality industry it requires a microscopic attention to detail, long hours spent at the beck and call of strangers, and the patience of Job. And to pull it off you have to genuinely like people. The Lesesnes really like people.
“It’s great to have new faces coming in and out all the time, to meet interesting people from all over,” says Frank.
“We’ve always worked together and worked well together,” says Amy.
“So it wasn’t a huge stretch to see us doing this,” says Frank. “Basically, she runs the front of the house, I’m the back of the house.”
Somewhere in the middle you’ll find manager Vivi Verity Nellen. Locals also know her as Sweet Vivi, baker of extraordinary confections and certified paddleboard instructor with a penchant for doing headstands out on the water. A chance meeting on a Halloween night set the wheels in motion.
“Amy was having dinner with Michelle Prentice, who’s a friend of mine,” she says, “and we just hit it off.” With her background in event planning she seemed a perfect fit to take on the minutiae of event planning and guest services.
“Vivi knows anything and everything about Beaufort,” says Frank.
She still bakes, but these days Sweet Vivi’s famous cookies and cakes are reserved for the guests. Well, mostly.
“I have to keep an eye on Frank,” she says.
Whether it’s a day of world-class fly fishing with the Orvis-certified guides of Bay Street Outfitters, a kayaking adventure through the tidal creeks or a tour of historic Penn Center, Vivi will arrange it and pack a lunch to go if you want. She’ll also book on-site massages, a private yoga session on the porch, and, yes, paddleboard lessons.
“We just hosted a group of women, small business owners,” she says. “They rented the whole place for three days and we did everything from boxed breakfasts that they took out to Hunting Island to s’mores and hot chocolate at night. And there were crazy dietary needs so our boxed lunches were vegan and vegetarian, dairy free, gluten free – all sorts of different things. And that’s what we do.”
“We want the guest experience to begin before they arrive and linger with them long after they leave,” says Amy.
And part of that experience resonates in the tiniest of details, like Vivi’s sweets.
“The guests get different treats each night for turn-down,” she says. “I’m weird that way. They can’t be the same. Tonight it’s red velvet cupcakes, tomorrow chocolate peppermint cookies.”
The cookies (among other things) seem to be paying off according to Vivi.
“After just four months we’re already getting repeat customers,” she says, “and the reviews have been phenomenal.” In fact, they’ve been perfect. At this writing Anchorage 1770 rates five out of five stars on Tripadvisor.com.
“As you know, this is a labor intensive job,” says Frank with a grin. “So at the end of the day we feel obligated to host happy hour.”
“All the guests love happy hour,” says Amy. “It’s the one thing they all talk about.”
She pauses and smiles. “Of course, we love it, too.”
Depending upon the season and the weather, happy hour convenes on the middle porch or the upper deck around five pm. During the warmer months, the shaded third floor porch is the perfect spot to lounge on one of the giant couch swings and catch a river breeze. But as the weather cools, the180 degree view from the upper deck is simply unmatched, perhaps the best part of the Admiral’s legacy. Guests can watch the sun come up in the morning with a fresh roasted cup of coffee and enjoy a spectacular sunset with new friends and cocktails in the evening. Stick around and watch the moon rise over the Woods Memorial Bridge for a truly enchanting way to end a night – or begin one.
The Grand Dame of Bay Street has stood watch over the Beaufort River for nearly two and a half centuries. She’s weathered revolution, civil war, two world wars, hurricanes and fires, generations of owners, tenants, rascals and a close call with the wrecking ball. And if the Lesesnes are right, her best years still lie ahead.
A Waterfront Boutique Inn
1103 Bay Street