In recent years, some of the truly exciting projects in the city of Buffalo have taken place at Canalside, Larkinville and other unique destinations throughout the city. At the same time, our residential neighborhoods have also seen a fair share of rejuvenation. Take 619 Lafayette Avenue for example. This beautiful historic mansion was designed by Lansing and Beierl, and built in 1898 as an example of truly exceptional architecture, loaded with modern day conveniences. The house was built for H.H.Hewitt, a man who helped to change the railroad industry through forward-thinking concepts and ingenious ideas that helped to industrialize the nation.
As with so many other incredible and irreplaceable Buffalo properties, the H.H.Hewitt mansion took a turn for the worse, eventually becoming a rooming house broken up into 18 rooms – a truly tragic state of affairs for such a stunning home. Fortunately, Buffalo eventually emerged from its Dark Period to see a day where people looked at such properties with renewed passion and vigor. This particular house headed for City auction, where it was picked up by Joe and Ellen Lettieri for $183K. “We felt that it was a pretty safe bet,” Joe told me. “Just take a look at the street, and what’s around it. We bought it sight unseen at the City foreclosure sale in 2011. At the time, we had no intention on converting it into upscale hotel suites. We just wanted to see what was inside before deciding what to do with it. When we first stepped inside we couldn’t believe what had been done to it. The living room and the dining room had been converted to rooming house apartments. Same with the other floors.
“From the start, there was limited photo documentation, which meant that we needed to start putting together the story of the house through clues that we uncovered along the way. As we took down the drop ceilings we began to find hidden woodwork, hand painted stenciling, and 22 karat gold leafing. We began working with antique dealers to see if we could track down and/or identify bits and pieces of the house that were sold over the years – mantels, sconces, chandeliers, etc.
“It was the historic common areas that took the biggest hits, but there was still plenty to go by. Recently we have been getting lucky with some finds that have surprised us. Just the other day, a woman who used to live here dropped off an original chandelier for the master suite – for free. She said that her husband wouldn’t let her hang it up in their house. She knew exactly what room it came from – I took it right upstairs and it was the perfect fit.
Slowly but surely the house began to come together. It turns out that Joe is a handyman, and Ellen is a business whiz. While Joe began to formulate his plan of attack, Ellen wrote out a business plan. Once the plan was in place, the work began. They decided that tackling the guest rooms on the second and third floors was the critical first step, along with carving out living quarters for themselves.
The couple ended up moving into the mansion last Thanksgiving, and accepted their first guest in March of 2015. “Ellen is president of InnBuffalo – she reminds me every morning,” Joe said [laughing]. “She drove this thing – my hat goes off to her. Ellen takes care of the back of the house – operations, reservations, etc. We have hired part time house keepers to clean the rooms. I’m in charge of maintenance and general operations. At this point, the mansion is what I call “Preservation in Progress”.
“We’re fully operational at this point, but we’re still working towards restoring as much of it as we can to its original state. We’re replicating what we can, fashioning missing baseboards and columns. Our guests are actually a part of the mystery. They love seeing what we’re doing to bring back the original luster of the mansion, from the handprinted artwork on music room ceiling to the lush wood paneling. At one point someone decided that it was a good idea to paint everything white. We’ve been looking for areas that repeat pattern work, and examining side panels for symmetry, just to get a sense of what this all looked like back in the day. This building was built around the time of the Pan Am Expo – the lighting fixtures are dual fixture electric and gas. The plaster walls were then prepared with canvas, so that artists could create at will… that tells us something about the wealth of Hewitt. Thankfully the mansion was not completely stripped and there are enough pieces and clues to get us back on track.”
Since its opening, InnBuffalo has been a great recruiting tool for University at Buffalo and the Medical Campus. The visitors that stay at InnBuffalo temporarily live in the lap of luxury. While interviewing Joe, he placed a reservation for Hutch’s Restaurant, just down the street. “We’re centrally located, ” Joe stated. “We have top ratings on Trip Advisor because we treat our guests to the finest beds, instant hot water, transportation, radiant heat bathroom floors, individual climate control, fresh baked goods and breakfast in the morning… we go out of our way to make every accommodation possible. But the best part is that it’s all inside this historic mansion – people can’t get over how beautiful it is. The building is over-insulated, warm and quiet. Ellen and I cook the breakfasts, engage our visitors, and make sure that we are the best Buffalo ambassadors that we can be. This project has taken me on a journey and made me a preservationist, a historian and an ambassador to this city.”
The historic and luxurious InnBuffalo off Elmwood, a Preservation in Progress, will hold its official grand opening on Thursday, October 8, 2015 at 619 Lafayette Avenue. A press conference and ribbon cutting ceremony will be held at 11:00 AM EDT, followed by an invitation-only luncheon from noon to 1:00 PM EDT. The public is welcome to view the former 1898 grand mansion of Buffalo entrepreneur H. H. Hewitt—now a unique, luxury hotel—from 1:00 to 7:00 PM EDT. Harpist Kela Walton will provide a musical serenade from 12:00 to 2:00 PM EDT. As part of this special day, Inn owners Joseph and Ellen Lettieri welcome guests with a rare opportunity to tour the grand first floor common areas, and each of the nine luxury suites. Live music & free overnight stay giveaways throughout the day!