InnBuffalo - Buffalo, NY
In November 2011, when Ellen and Joe Lettieri placed the winning tax-auction bid on the property at 619 Lafayette Avenue in Buffalo, NY, they had no set plan for the building. Instead, they let things unfold organically, and eventually turned a dilapidated rooming house into InnBuffalo, the area’s most beloved boutique inn.
Trust, good karma and resilience
The former Hewitt Mansion had been built as a single-family residence in the late 1800s by one of the city’s growing group of industrial millionaires. Over the next 100 years or so, though, the 10,000+ square foot residence fell into disrepair.
The night before the tax auction, Joe peeked in the windows (tax-foreclosed properties are rarely, if ever, available for viewing prior to sale). What he saw was enough to convince Ellen that they should go all-in. As crazy as it seemed – they’d sold their previous home and were using the money for the purchase – Ellen agreed.
By the end of auction day, one of Buffalo’s most significant mansions would soon be their new home. It was also still home to the rooming-house tenants who had lived there for years.
For several months, the residents continued to live in the mansion and Joe, Ellen and their daughter took care to embrace them, as well as the former owner, who also lived there. Believing that you get what you give, they treated their tenants with kindness throughout the transition and helped all find new homes that exceeded their needs.
Discovering their business’s purpose
During that transitional time, they also discovered that they loved offering tours to people who stopped by and enjoyed hosting friends and family at the mansion.
“We loved the idea of bringing the mansion back to its original intent – to provide a special place to welcome and entertain people,” says Joe.
After some research, including reading a pivotal book by Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotels, they decided that they’d turn their new home into a boutique inn.
Marrying history with modern amenities
With a new mission and vision, they got to work planning the renovations.
“Amazingly, over more than a century, the mansion survived with ninety-six percent of its footprint intact,” marvels Joe.
While much was covered up, like painted-over gold-leaf wallpaper, most of the woodwork, tilework, stained glass and more had survived, including original and extremely rare bath and shower fixtures. The mansion was also one of the first homes in the world to have electricity throughout.
Fortunate advice leads to funding
Despite their professional experiences in real estate, construction and facilities maintenance, Ellen and Joe had a hard time securing bank financing.
As Ellen says, “While they were enthusiastic about the project, it wasn’t something that they could fully fund in this startup stage. We’d just about given up hope that we’d get funding.”
While they worked tirelessly to renovate the mansion, they also worked closely with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Buffalo State College, the local Small Business Administration (SBA) office and SCORE. They spent months developing a meticulously detailed business plan that included timelines for construction and operations, financial projections and more.
They also received an introduction to the Buffalo office team of The 504 Company and, as Ellen says, that changed everything for them.
Their representative, Mike Taylor, worked with them through every step. Eventually, and in partnership with M&T Bank, Ellen and Joe secured an SBA 504 loan. The funds covered the renovations, furniture and equipment they needed to get their new venture off the ground, and a separate loan provided working capital to help them hire two staff members.
They also credit the City of Buffalo, local economic development agencies and many others for coming together to make this enormous and important project a success.
In 2016, they welcomed their first guests and they’ve never looked back.
Joe says, “With the inn, we carry on our family traditions of hospitality. We offer the intimacy and warmth of a private mansion, but with the luxury of a boutique inn.”
To fulfill their vision, which includes increasing access to the outdoor courtyard and having round-the-clock staff, they say they wouldn’t hesitate to work with The 504 Company again.
“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, and it’s been such an incredible journey,” admits Ellen.