There's room at the Inn
The Merrill Inn, a Gothic Revival home built in 1878 in the heart of Prince Edward County, is seeking new owners
343 MAIN ST. EAST, PICTON
ASKING PRICE: $1,990,000
TAXES: $9,309.37 (2016)
LOT SIZE: 1.07-acres
AGENTS: Sam Simone, Laurie Gruer, Monica Klingenberg (Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd.)
The back story
On Sept. 11, 2001, a couple of graduates from Ryerson University's hotel management program were well-ensconced in the hospitality industry in Florida. Shaken by that day's terror attacks against the United States, Edward and Amy Shubert made up their minds to retreat to a more genial setting.
"We had dreamed forever about owning a country inn," Ms. Shubert says.
The couple began scouting locations from Florida to Vermont to Ontario for a property with 10 rooms or more. That size would allow them to put their hotel management skills to use and build a profitable business, they figured.
After a few months of searching, they came across the Merrill Inn in Picton. The small town is the gateway to bucolic Prince Edward County,with its landscape of rolling farmland, surrounded by the waters of Lake Ontario. Many of the farms and old homesteads in the area had been established in the late 1700s by the United Empire Loyalists who settled there after the American Revolutionary War.
In the Victorian era of the late 1800s, Picton was a thriving port and industrial town on the edge of Lake Ontario. The prosperity allowed local tycoons to line the main street with grand estates, in an area close to the town's harbour.
One of those architectural landmarks is the Gothic Revival home built in 1878 for the county's first magistrate, Edwards Merrill.
According to The Settler's Dream: A Pictorial History of the Older Buildings of Prince Edward County, Mr. Merrill purchased the lot from Washburn Farm for $750 in 1877. He hired master builder J.W. Fegan to design and build the house of red brick.
According to authors Tom Cruickshank and Peter John Stokes: "Most striking is the gabled tower, but the narrow windows, bargeboard trim and slender chimneys all add to the playful character of the building. He also added plenty of detail, including 12 gables, to offset the general massiveness of the building."
Mr. Merrill, a town magistrate, didn't live in the house for long. He sold it after about one year and had another home built nearby.
Local records suggest the house changed hands a few times before it was divided into apartments. In the early 1980s, entreprenuer Fred Weeks purchased the 5,000-square-foot pile, added another 3,000 square feet, and transformed the dwelling into the Merrill Inn.
Mr. Weeks became well-known in the hospitality world for his stable of historic inns around Southern Ontario and his partnership in the Isaiah Tubbs Resort and Conference Centre, which is still a popular destination in the county.
After a time, Mr. Weeks sold the inn to two Toronto-based partners. The owners loved the property but didn't have the expertise to run things smoothly, Mr. Shubert says.
They operated mainly from afar and the building became quite dilapitated, Ms. Shubert adds. "Things were held up with yellow electrical tape."
The Shuberts spotted the inn online in early December, 2001, and on Jan. 31, 2002, they picked up the keys.
"We knew what we were looking for," Ms. Shubert says of the quick deal.
The couple and their son Nathan lived in the owner's suite at the rear as they spent more than a year updating the electrical, plumbing and heating systems in the antique dwelling. They renovated guest rooms and refurbished original Italianate elements and Victorian details such as decorative plaster mouldings, an impressive central staircase and a slender turret.
"You can paint anything in gold and put marble anywhere," says Mr. Shubert, but it was most important to upgrade the major systems in order to comply with building codes and provide comfort for the guests.
As preparations were under way, the Shuberts saw lots of potential in the nascent tourism industry of Prince Edward County. The county is close enough for a weekend get-away for residents of Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, Mr. Shubert points out. Families often visited for the beaches of Sandbanks Provincial Park, while cyclists enjoyed riding along the scenic roads.
Wine makers were just discovering how hospitable the peninsula's micro-climate was for planting vineyards. "When we arrived, there was one winery and one cider company," Ms. Shubert says, but the couple would see a number of wineries opened through the years. The growers who supply the wineries also increased, noted chefs migrated to the bucolic setting, and in 2017 a number of craft breweries started up.
"I don't think we ever dreamed that it would become the hipster hotspot that it has," says Ms. Shubert of the latest wave of visitors.
The house today
Guests who arrive via the front walk pass through sprays of lavender in the perennial gardens on their way to an old-fashioned porch and entranceway.
Today the historic inn has 13 guest rooms and suites in various configurations. All have ensuite bathrooms. Ms. Shubert tossed away the antimacassars draped over the furniture and now decorates using a mix of antiques and contemporary pieces. She enjoys redecorating to keep the fabrics and colour palette fresh, and she hangs the work of local artists on the walls.
Outside there are private and common balconies, parking at the rear and extensive grounds where the guests can sit or amble under a canopy of mature trees.
The Shuberts say the house at the east end of the town's main street could be turned back into a large single-family home but it's hard for them to envision that because the dwelling is so large. They would love to see it continue to operate as an inn. "The way it was my dream, it could be someone else's dream," Ms. Shubert says.
There is an owner's suite which the Shuberts currently use as an office. They also had plans drawn up for an owner's cottage at the back of the property.
Ideally, a young couple with lots of energy would continue the business they've built up, they say. When they took over, for example, the menu consisted mainly of pub grub.
"It still looked like a pub with the TV down there and the paraphernalia," Ms. Shubert says.
The couple turned the pub into a dining room and now many of the inn's packages include dinner at the restaurant. Many guests also organize their visits around tours of artists' studios. "It's not all about wine – it's all about the arts scene too," Mr. Shubert says. In the winter, visitors travel to the county for art, wine tasting, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing. "It keeps our staff employed year-round."
The Shuberts say that having a team of staff members is one of the main advantages of running an inn of this size. People who own bed and breakfast establishments typically don't generate enough revenue to hire help.
Room rates range between $245 and $345 a night, Mr. Shubert says. The inn occupies a niche that draws visitors from Europe, Quebec and many parts of Ontario. Most people are interested in wine, art and fine dining.
A typical guest might choose between a weekend in Prince Edward County and a Porter Airlines flight to Chicago or New York, Mr. Shubert says. "Those are the choices people are making in short get-aways."
He adds that the inn is typically not competing for the business of tourists who opt for a one-week all-inclusive package to an island in the Caribbean. "We know who our market is."
Still, the Shuberts say they are always looking ahead to the next demographic. Now, in addition to a Vine and Dine package, for example, they offer the Brew 'n' Que for guests who prefer beer tasting and lunch at a food truck offering Texas barbeque.
"The industry's very young," Ms. Shubert says.
After 16 years at the Merrill Inn, the Shuberts are ready to ease into retirement but they plan to stay in town and provide any guidance the new owners may need.
"It's a bit of a legacy," says Mr. Shubert. "I would hate to see somebody buy it as a hospitality-based business and have it lose its lustre."
The best feature
Much of the inn's success stems from turning the pub into a renowned restaurant and patio with seating for 50, Mr. Shubert says. "For us it has driven bedroom business."
The couple drew chef Michael Sullivan to the county in 2004. Last month he presented a dish he prepared from local fare for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall during their visit to the county.
Ms. Shubert adds that many people who live in the county will dine at the inn for a night out or to celebrate a special occasion.
"The restaurant is your window to the community," Ms. Shubert says. "It's where you make your reputation."