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Home away from home: Innkeepers turn guests into Buffalo ambassadors

As Lisa Parks prepared to retire from her career as a public school teacher, she and her husband, Michael, contemplated their next steps. Eventually, they decided to open a bed-and-breakfast and, after exploring several properties, settled on 288 Linwood Avenue: a stunning circa-1870, Second Empire-style home they believe was designed by Oscar S. Lang, the general contractor for the Darwin Martin House.

The three-story brick edifice had been a private home for much of its history, but turned commercial in 1989, housing medical and legal offices at various times. By the time Lisa and Michael purchased it, the property needed some serious TLC. Linoleum and mauve carpeting covered most of the beautiful hardwood flooring, an extra wall in the back blocked much-needed natural light and the kitchen was gone.

“I was pretty excited there was no kitchen because then we could create what we wanted,” Lisa said. “The parking lot [next door] was appealing. It’s a beautiful street, and we saw potential in what we could do here.”

Today, after nearly a year of renovations, the couple lives in the third-floor apartment and operates Oscar’s Bed & Breakfast with three guest suites — including a handicap-friendly suite on the ground floor — and several common areas for guests to enjoy.

Guests enter and register in the grand foyer of Oscar’s Bed & Breakfast on Linwood Avenue.

“We wanted to celebrate Buffalo, so each room is named after a prominent Buffalo architect,” Lisa said. The Wade Room — named for John J. Wade, chief architect of City Hall — features art deco décor and local artwork. The Wright room highlight’s Frank Lloyd Wright and his Asian influences with Prairie-style accents and obi sashes on the walls.

“One thing we like about the building is that it connects with the history of the city, and we try to play off that,” said Michael, an art education professor at Buffalo State. “We celebrate the history of the city, which is spectacular, and also celebrate the contemporary by focusing on local artists.”

When the owners bought the house, there was no kitchen, so they were free to build their dream: a bright, contemporary space where all guest meals are prepared and served. It blends seamlessly with the historical details that abound throughout the rest of Oscar’s Bed & Breakfast.

Lisa and Michael Parks are members of a new class of local innkeepers — individuals who may not have pictured this lifestyle in their long-term future, but have embraced it, sacrificing some of their privacy for myriad benefits. Of course there are financial advantages, but more than that, they enjoy meeting people from across the world, showcasing our city and helping to cement Buffalo’s reputation as an underrated gem for travelers.

“People who stay in B&Bs tend to be people who have traveled a lot,” said Michael. “They like sitting down and meeting people who live here and getting a real sense of the culture and lifestyle. That’s something you don’t get at a hotel.”

Preservation in progress

The library is paneled with quarter-sawn white oak, and its gold-leaf ceiling is stenciled with a Persian-inspired design. The grand staircase at InnBuffalo features an intricately carved balustrade and large stained glass windows.

“My mission is to make ambassadors out of our guests,” said Joseph Lettieri, who owns and operates InnBuffalo off Elmwood with his wife, Ellen. “If you stay with us, my goal is that when you leave you tell your friends, family and colleagues, ‘What a time we had — this might be the best kept secret.’”

Located on Lafayette Avenue, InnBuffalo was constructed in 1898 and converted into an 18-unit rooming house in the 1950s. (A few pocket doors still display room numbers from this period.) The Lettieris purchased it sight unseen and spent nearly four years converting the upper floors into nine luxurious guest suites, with a separate dwelling space for them and their 15-year-old daughter. The renovations required replacing the roof, repointing all six chimneys, upgrading the plumbing and electrical, adding insulation and more.

Today, guests are treated to a preservation in progress; while the suites are polished and tranquil, the ground floor includes some imperfections — fraying century-old silk wall covering, painted ceilings in need of restoration — that provide a glimpse at the work required to return a historic mansion to its former grandeur.

“It’s been an asset,” Ellen said of the continued restoration. “You can go a lot of places and see it all restored, but you don’t often get to see the layers and hear the stories behind it.”

The Lettieris try to make each guest feel welcome and encourage them to stay in the city, recommending architectural and historic sites to visit and restaurants to try.

“There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for our guests, and we make you feel that way,” Joseph said. “We’ve had guests who went out to dinner and told me they couldn’t wait to get home. They didn’t realize what they said, but I picked up on it —this is like a home away from home for people.”

International visitors

Parkside House owner Christopher Lavey spent ten years renovating the 1898 home.

For Christopher Lavey, who owns the Parkside House on Woodward Avenue, the best part of life as an innkeeper is meeting and conversing with guests from all over the world.

“We get a lot of parents from Canisius [College], so for four years we become friends before their kids graduate,” Lavey said.

Lavey purchased the 1898 home about 20 years ago and spent more than a decade renovating it piece by piece. He ripped up carpeting to expose the hardwood floors, removed the drop ceilings and added period furnishings throughout, including a gorgeous baby grand piano he encourages guests to play.

“One of the most rewarding parts for me is listening to the camaraderie of people at the dining room table,” said Bonnie Weinberger, a neighbor who works at the B&B. “Sometimes they sit there for hours. The other day we had three doctors from other parts of the country, and they so enjoyed talking to one another. It’s amazing.”

It’s that cultural exchange that appeals most to Seth and Gaia Amman, who operate an Airbnb in their Allentown home.

“People from every type of country have stayed here, and we’ve had some very unique experiences from guests,” said Seth. “We can be better ambassadors [for Buffalo] because of our experiences and because we know why our guests want to come here. When you live here, it’s hard to see that outside perspective.”

The Ammans have operated their Airbnb for about six years, welcoming hundreds of travelers from Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and cities across the U.S. Along the way, they’ve even become friends with a few; one guest attended their wedding and joined them at another friend’s wedding in Italy.

Their outgoing personalities and different professional backgrounds — he’s an architect, she’s a microbiologist and novelist — help them to relate to a wide range of guests. Plus, having lived in their neighborhood for nearly 15 years, they enjoy recommending restaurants, bars and other favorite spots to guests based on their specific tastes.

“We love our house, and when you walk in you feel that,” said Gaia. “You become part of the household. You become part of the family for a night or two weeks.”

Tips for hosting your own guests

At Seth and Gaia Amman’s Airbnb in Allentown, the walls were red when they moved in — they loved the bold color and kept it.

These innkeepers say creating Buffalo boosters out of your guests and providing top-notch hospitality isn’t as difficult as you might think.

Before inviting guests to stay with you, both the Ammans and Lettieris suggested spending a couple nights in your guest room to make sure the space is comfortable and you understand its quirks. Keep items guests may need nearby, including towels and the Wi-Fi password. Consider giving them a key during their stay, and have recommendations ready for restaurants, cultural attractions and other sites that they’ll enjoy — and will show off our resurgent city.

“Have some water in the room or maybe little toiletries to make it a little like a bed-and-breakfast,” said Lisa Parks of Oscar’s B&B. “Show them around if they’re not familiar where things are. And be sure to tell them, ‘Please make yourself at home.’”

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