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Luxury B&B owners create a historic haven for Washington wanderers, explorers

Posted April 26, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

Business owners Richard Smoot and John Butler were looking for a quieter life when they moved from Washington, D.C. to Washington, NC to open the Elmwood 1820 Bed & Breakfast Inn. The couple has transformed the historic house on Main Street into a charming B&B that is beloved by locals and visitors alike. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

Richard Smoot and his husband John Butler first visited Washington, North Carolina on a bit of a whim. Little did they know that they would be settling into town as the new owners of the Elmwood 1820 Bed & Breakfast Inn a few years later.

"John's mother lives in a little town in nearby Bertie County. We were visiting her for the holidays and we just wandered into Washington," Smoot said. "We came down here while we were out exploring one day. Washington instantly came across as cute, charming, warm and friendly, and we both had the same thought, that this was a town we could live in."

Though Smoot and Butler were taken with Washington's idyllic charisma, the couple was actually living in a bigger city with the same name at the time — Washington, D.C. Butler was working for the African Wildlife Foundation. Smoot, an architect, was working on a contract for the United States Department of State but had always had a passion for the hospitality industry.

"Through college and immediately afterwards, I worked for hotels. When I moved to the D.C. area, while I was looking for an architecture job, I was working at the Ritz Carlton," he said. "After spending years as an architect I had a notion that I wanted to get back into the hospitality industry and operating a B&B was something I had thought about doing for two decades."

On their first visit, since it was Christmas Eve, most places in Washington were closed as Smoot and Butler wandered around town. As they were driving down Main Street, Smoot spotted the Elmwood and noticed it was for sale. However, it wasn't until two years later when they saw that the house was still on the market, that the couple was ready to take the plunge.

"We just said, wow the house is still there. At this point we were both thinking that it was really time to get out of the D.C. area. We realized we were working really, really hard for a lifestyle that we didn't enjoy that much anymore," Smoot said. "A couple months later we had a really bad traffic day in D.C. where it took us three hours to commute to work just 15 miles away and we said, 'All right, we can't continue to do this.'"

The couple called the real estate agent for the Elmwood listing and scheduled a showing. The rest, as they say, is history.

"We came down here and looked at a couple other properties with magnificent older homes too, but the Elmwood checked most of our boxes — proximity to downtown, size, presence and potential. So we made an offer on the house and it got accepted," Smoot said.

Butler moved to town first, a few months after the sale was finalized, in the fall of 2015. Smoot continued to commute from D.C. for the next four years while working his architecture job, but moved to Washington permanently in April 2019.

"I would commute down on Friday evenings and take over the B&B for the weekend, and then I would drive back to D.C. in the wee hours of Monday morning," said Smoot.

The time, energy and love that has been infused into the historic home has made the Elmwood 1820 what it is today — a luxury bed & breakfast that "welcomes people who were born to wander, find adventure, and explore unique and curious places."

In addition to accommodating guests (fun fact: actress Hilary Duff stayed in the B&B while filming a TV segment), the Elmwood 1820 hosts events like weddings, supper clubs and musical performances, and has even been featured on HGTV.

Uniquely and intricately decorated, the inn features a global contemporary art collection curated from the couple's travels and according to Smoot, is free from "knickknacks and doilies."

"We want our guests to feel like they are living in their very own antebellum mansion," he said.

Featuring five rooms, adjoining sitting rooms and river views, the accommodations are popular with locals and visitors alike. Each of the inn's guest rooms have their own theme and personality, but the sweeping porches, expansive lawn and other details of the Elmwood 1820 keep patrons wandering throughout the house and grounds.

"We have had the most wonderful guests come and stay with us. We've met a collection of really cool people from everywhere and it has been so great," Smoot said. "We get people that are local to the area who live in Greenville or Chocowinity who just want to spend a weekend in Little Washington for a quick staycation. A lot of our guests come from the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area too. We're just a 90-minute drive away [from the Triangle]."

The 5,500-square-foot blue house with black shutters and white trim on West Main Street wasn't always a bed and breakfast though. The historic home's Greek revival origins, wrap-around porch and three storied Italian-inspired architectural details have drawn in the eyes of passersby for 200 years.

Originally built in 1820 by Colonel Joshua Tayloe, the "home has changed hands on several occasions over its lifetime, serving as Union Army headquarters and a hospital during the Civil War and as a stately residence for prominent Washington residents many years after," the Washington Daily News reported.

Of course, you can't have a B&B without breakfast and Smoot's recipes are all the rage — especially his biscuits. One guest reviewer on Tripadvisor said the biscuits were the "best he's ever eaten," which is saying something in the South.

Smoot infuses time and care into his recipes, making things like Cajun-inspired shrimp and grits and sweet potato pancakes with a maple pecan topping, and even caters to guests' dietary restrictions when needed.

"We take breakfast very seriously and try to come up with interesting, seasonal menus. We're always trying to vary things up. My biscuits — I'm definitely in the flaky layer crowd rather than the buttery and crumbly," said Smoot. "It's fun when people have unique dietary restrictions because I can make interesting combinations. I made a spiced sweet potato hash for one vegan guest and topped it with a poached 'egg' made from silken tofu and pumpkin puree. We can certainly accommodate a vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free diet."

While the inn is certainly beautiful and the breakfast is bountiful and delicious, Smoot noted this first foray into business ownership hasn't been without its challenges and called it "really difficult and a steep learning curve.

"One of the downsides to running a B&B is that you're never off — especially on the weekends when we have a full house. It's a bit all consuming, but the reward is great," he said. "It's been fulfilling and fun. We are innkeepers, bakers, housekeepers and concierge. People look to us to help them plan what to do in the area, which is a really picturesque place that many people don't even know about."

The most important thing as a first-time business owner, according to Smoot, is fearlessness.

"If you've been dreaming about something for a long time, just do it. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But it's better to have tried it," he said.

Fortunately for Smoot and Butler, their hospitality business in Washington has worked out — though the time they put into the Elwood 1820 is a 24/7 commitment. When work is your life and life is your work, it's important to be in the right place with the right people, and Smoot repeatedly sings the praises of Washington and its residents.

"I can't say enough great things about this town and the reception we've received. When we first made an offer on the house, it was around the same time that HB2 was passed and I thought, 'What have we done?' There were all of these terrible headlines coming out of North Carolina making it seem like it wasn't a state that would be welcoming to people like John and I," Smoot said. "But the reception we've received here has been the most warm and welcoming. It could not have been a more perfect place for us as an out, gay couple to open up a business."

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

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