A recent gift has allowed Sweet Briar College to move forward with restorations to public spaces at Elston Inn located near the main entrance to the campus.
Claire Griffith, director of major and planned gifts, said the gift came in the wake of the 2015 announcement Sweet Briar would close. The women’s college in Amherst County came close to closure when former school leaders announced in March 2015 it would shut its doors in August of that year due to financial difficulties. After a court battle in 2015, a settlement agreement was reached that kept the school open under new leadership.
When the sons of Gordon Beemer, Florence Elston-Beemer’s husband, heard the activity surrounding the college, they contacted school officials to see what was happening with the inn and Beemer Conference Center, Griffith said.
The late Elston-Beemer was a 1921 Sweet Briar alumna who donated the money to construct the inn on SBC’s campus. The late Beemer was her second husband.
“When they came, they were concerned [the inn] wasn’t quite up to the level they’d hoped but understood that we’d had some difficulties over the past few years based on what they read with the closing announcement,” Griffith said of the sons’ visit.
Griffith said based on their concerns and because their parents gave the significant gift for the inn and conference center, their financial contribution helped refresh the public spaces.
The biggest change is taking place is in the welcome center, Griffith said. When the original addition to the inn was built, its breakfast center was put in the Wailes Center and was only accessible from the inn through an open air breezeway between buildings, she said.
“But as a lot of things happen, you start using it [and] you see that maybe it’s not the best and most convenient for the guests,” Griffith said.
The current arrangement has guests seated at tables in the main lobby for breakfast with the front desk tucked off to the left upon entrance. The changes in progress include moving the front desk to the main lobby area, turning the area where the welcome desk currently sits into a dining area and closing off the doorway that currently leads to the open air breezeway.
“It’s not really comfortable to have the front door open and you be sitting here eating breakfast,” Griffith said. “We want to change that; for [the staff] to be able to see who’s coming in and out both doors is really important, and to have a nice desk as the welcome to the inn was important.”
With construction, Griffith said they are reusing as many cabinets as possible and even reupholstered furniture in the second floor lounge.
“Right now, it gets worse before it gets better,” Griffith said. “... It’s been a real labor of love for the whole process because we’ve had alumni that are in the interior design business … we had one that sent us a tremendous amount of fabric that she had so we’ve been able to reupholster a lot of furniture with donated fabrics.”
The college also refurbished the large round lounge at the inn and the conference room across the walkway from the lounge.
The floors of the lounge have been refinished, the furniture has been reupholstered and the bathroom has been redone, among other refreshments.
In the conference room tables were refinished, chairs reupholstered, new lights and a new kitchen were installed and technology was added for ease of presentations in the space.
Griffith said one thing they would like to see with the inn is the increase of more business travelers staying on campus.
Vanessa Angus of the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce said she is delighted to promote the inn, adding business travelers are looking for a “comfortable stay” with amenities that allow them to work outside a typical office setting.
According to a recent study on rural tourism, the industry has seen “big changes” in the past five years, Angus said. The study states some travelers have lost interest in “cookie-cutter” restaurants, lodging, and attractions and seek instead local food and attractions and “connection to the lifestyles of local people,” Angus said.
“The Elston Inn will provide [the local connection] with the added perk of being situated on Sweet Briar College’s beautiful campus,” Angus said. “Their openness to business travelers will be beneficial to all, including our community and the local economy.”
The college would like to see the inn become something like the Peaks of Otter, Griffith said, where people come for the campus’ beauty, stay and hike the local landscape.
“I think ultimately we’d like to make it a place that people want to come besides just to go to college,” Griffith said. “First and foremost, we want them to come and go to college but then we want other people [to come] because we do have so many natural, beautiful resources here.”