Historic Hillsborough inn to open after extensive renovation

By Korie Dean

Elise Tyler immediately saw the for-sale sign outside of the dilapidated Colonial Inn. The building’s exterior, once painted an almost blinding white, had faded into a dull gray after decades of neglect. Sections of siding were rotting, and some of the inn’s windows were boarded up.

Tyler had felt drawn to the two-story antebellum inn since she moved to North Carolina from Cape Code in 2007.  She often spent evenings at Tupelo’s Restaurant, a now-closed downtown dinery where her roommate at the time worked. She said she would glance up West King Street and stare at the nearby inn, captivated.

After 10 years of admiring the inn from outside, Tyler had a chance to enter. She saw the inn’s owner standing on its cobblestone front porch, and he let her walk through the building.

Tyler said the inn’s lobby only had natural lighting, which seeped in through its original windows.  Paint and 1950s-era wallpaper fell to the floor in flakes. The water-stained ceiling sagged in a pronounced “U” shape as if it were smiling. The green carpeted floors were soaked with 20 years of moisture from the caved-in roof. This filled the room with the stench of mildew.

“It was in complete disarray, and I was totally, completely in love with it,” Tyler said.

She envisioned a bride standing on the original handcrafted wooden staircase. She pictured a group of old friends laughing in a state-of-the-art event space, celebrating their long-awaited retirement. In the next room, young professionals could unwind after a long day’s work in a swanky, moody bar.

Tyler said she did not know if her dream was possible. Could the building be repaired? Could she find others to help her?

Getting help and overcoming obstacles

Determined to make her dream a reality, Tyler assembled a team that shared her fearless vision.

Justin Fejfar, a structural engineer, drafted plans while his wife, Sunny Fejfar, researched the inn’s history and picked out decor. Reem Darar, a general contractor, brought her expertise for historic preservation. Majority investors Joe and Emily Goatcher, provided financial support, along with nine minority investors.

And Tyler, now the inn’s general manager, led the project with a fiery passion. She said the team members fit together so perfectly it felt cosmic.

After eight months of planning, including attending hours-long meetings to convince town leaders that their dream was possible, the team broke ground.

They still encountered problems. Subcontractors refused to enter the inn because of reported ghost sightings and asbestos. COVID-19 delayed the project’s completion for weeks.

Through it all, they became a family, Tyler said.

We’ve had to rewrite some of the course of our lives to make this happen,” Tyler said. “That creates a very strong bond.”

A rich, forgotten history

When Tyler first entered the Colonial Inn in July of 2017, the building was merely a sad relic of the former heart of Hillsborough’s tourism industry.

Although the founding date featured on its iconic mid-20th century marquee cites 1759 as the inn’s founding date, historical records suggest it was built in 1838. The inn hosted countless weddings, celebrations and Sunday lunches throughout its almost 200-year history.

Union soldiers ransacked the building after the Civil War, stopping only when they saw the owner’s wife display her husband’s Masonic apron from the balcony – a silent cry for mercy.

And while there’s no proof that former President George Washington was among the inn’s earliest guests, this story is a centerpiece of local lore, passed down by generations.

The inn closed in 2001 after its owners ran into financial trouble. The owner who followed them promised to renovate it, but he let the building fall into disrepair.

Private citizens and community groups tried to save the inn throughout the years, but in 2015, the Town of Hillsborough declared eminent domain and charged the aforementioned owner with demolition by neglect.

When Tyler’s team placed an offer of more than $850,000 in 2018, the inn officially changed hands.

From the beginning, the team wanted the inn to reclaim its place as Hillsborough’s front porch. They envisioned a building where lifelong residents could relive nostalgic memories and tourists could relax after a day exploring the historic town.

Every decision, from paint colors to light fixtures to the font on the new marquee sign, was made with the community in mind.

“There was no reason to do this whole thing if it wasn’t consistent with what the community needed,” Tyler said.

Tyler’s team likely won’t be the last to own the building.  Nevertheless, a long-awaited renovation, coupled with the inn’s surviving 19th-century architecture, has cemented its staying power in the heart of Hillsborough’s downtown for years to come.

Realizing a dream

Today, Darar is crouched down, giving a last-minute scrub to the blue and gray ornamental rug in the bar area of the soon-to-be operational inn.

“Stop stepping on the rug!” she tells Tyler. “I’m going to have to bring my Hoover in here.”

After three years of planning and construction, it’s staging day.

The owners are putting finishing touches on the 28-room boutique hotel and event space. Soon, florists and caterers will fill the halls as photographers document the final stages of the multimillion-dollar renovation. The inn looks quite different now.

In the lobby, sapphire-colored velvet booths glisten under gold lights, bringing a modern touch to the traditional structure. The original oak floors beneath are freshly mopped, no longer covered by mildewed carpet. The event space, which had to be rebuilt from the ground up, is covered in white and gold marble tile.

The space is ready for a bride and groom’s first dance under crystal chandeliers.

A few missing floor vents, small trails of sawdust and stray power cords make it clear that the inn is still a construction site – but Tyler and her team are almost done.

Looking through 8,000 renovation pictures taken on her iPhone, Tyler says she can hardly fathom that they’ve made it this far. Next month, the inn’s doors will open to the public for the first time with a large celebration.

The power was turned on last month, lighting up the inside of the neoclassical structure for the first time in two decades and illuminating three years of hard work.

Tyler’s husband drove up to the inn late that night.

He said he saw the inn’s warm, glowing light pouring out of its original windows onto the street. And like the beacon of hope Tyler dreamed it would become that fateful day three years ago – the inn welcomed her husband inside.

Edited by Ellie Heffernan