Past Is Prologue
Michael Glick says the Publick House Historic Inn and Country Lodge in Sturbridge is two miles — and two centuries — away from the Mass Pike.
“We have every modern amenity, but when people come here, they step back to a period in time when things weren’t so fast-paced. It’s a place where they can really relax,” said the general manager.
Throughout its 246-year history, the Publick House has been known for its hospitality, excellent food, and New England charm, and has become a popular venue for weddings, celebratory events, and family gatherings. Part of the draw is its central location: it is in close proximity to Route 20 and Interstates 90 and 84 and easy to get to from all of the New England states as well as New York and New Jersey.
The historic inn was built in 1771, houses two restaurants and a pub, sits directly across from the Town Common, and offers a retreat from stress on its 43-acre campus that contains more than eight buildings.
During the fall and winter, guests lounge in comfortable chairs next to wood-burning fireplaces and spend hours reading or talking to co-workers, friends, or family members.
In the spring and summer, meanwhile, they stroll along meandering brick walkways through lush gardens, relax on patios with sweeping vistas, and enjoy outdoor fire pits.
Although its 11 event rooms can accommodate corporate gatherings of up to 200 people, in the past, marketing efforts were focused almost entirely on weddings and events in the dining room. The complex was never promoted as a place to stay overnight, and Glick says that was purposeful.
The reason was simple: the inn offered 17 rooms, and the Chamberlain House next door had six rooms outfitted with period furnishings and décor. But the remaining 80+ rooms were in the outdated Country Motor Lodge. It was built in the ’60s on a hill behind the inn, has drive-up entrances to each room, and falls short of offering the luxury and amenities people expect today.
Minor upgrades were made over the years, including installation of new hotel bedding, but the discrepancy between the rooms in the Motor Inn and the Publick and Chamberlain House next door was so great, they couldn’t market it as a place to hold multi-day business meetings or group gatherings.
“All of our rooms are sold out every weekend because we have so many weddings here,” said Rooms Division Manager Michelle Rondeau, adding that they hosted 183 weddings last year, and 179 nuptial celebrations have already been booked for 2017.
“But corporate groups were offended by the idea of having to put some of their participants in the old motor lodge,” she noted. “Everyone wanted to stay in the inn or the Chamberlain House, and in order to book multi-day events, we needed to be able to offer similar accommodations.”
In 2014 a decision was made to help resolve that discrepancy, and 15 months ago a $3.2 million renovation and addition to the Chamberlain House was completed that includes 20 new hotel rooms.
It has changed the focus of the Publick House from a quintessential New England restaurant to a charming hotel that can custom-tailor events for businesses and other large groups.
New jobs were created as a result of the project, and salespeople who were hired to market the rooms were successful in attracting businesses, craft-oriented groups, and more for multi-day stays.
The trend is continuing, and construction on a new $5 million to $6 million building is expected to start soon to replace more of the old rooms in the motor inn. It will be built on a site that houses an old barn originally built to store horse feed.
“We’re a boutique hotel, and we are not looking to grow larger,” Glick said, adding that town bylaws allow the facility to have only 125 hotel rooms on the campus. “We just want to replace the motel rooms with ones of a higher quality.”
For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest looks at recent changes that have taken place at the Publick House Historic Inn and Meeting Lodge, what people can expect in the future, and the reasons behind the facility’s success.
Glick said the Publick House first approached the town about six years ago with the idea of making changes, and in 2014 the architectural and landscape design firm Siemasko and Verbridge was hired to find a creative and appropriate way to add new guest rooms to the campus.
Its design plan involved retaining the exterior of the 1830 Chamberlain House with its wide columned porch, gutting the interior, replacing outdated plumbing and electrical wiring, adding a handicapped entrance, and building an addition onto the rear of the structure that would add 14 new rooms and blend in seamlessly with the neighboring historic buildings.
After the renovation and addition was complete, the rooms were decorated in a simple manner befitting the history of the home and Publick House. Window treatments were purchased from Country Curtains in Sturbridge, and the rooms were furnished with solid-wood bureaus and beds whose high wood posts are topped with pineapples, which are a sign of hospitality commonly seen at New England inns during the Colonial era.
In addition, an outdoor courtyard was built between the Chamberlain House and the Publick House that overlooks the bucolic area where the Garden Tent area is set up three seasons of the year. It can hold 200 guests and is a popular place for weddings.
A brick pathway leads directly from the Chamberlain House to the tent, and the suite that faces the area is used as a hospitality room for bridal parties, large gatherings, and corporate events, while the patio is often the setting for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
Two of the five buildings that make up the old motor lodge have been phased out, and more rooms will be closed when the new building is complete, but Glick said they plan to leave a few open for travelers seeking a modest price point.
“The addition and renovation of the Chamberlain House has definitely increased our corporate business,” Rondeau said, noting that companies that have held training sessions, seminars, meetings, and themed events in the country setting.
For example, a Hawaiian Luau in the Garden Tent was created for a business party and included carving a fully cooked pig in the patio area.
“We created a beautiful atmosphere. The outdoor fire pit was burning, tiki torches were lit around the perimeter of the area, and there were lush flowers blooming everywhere,” Glick said, explaining that the acreage allows the company to offer events that might not be possible in a downtown hotel in a large city.
He added that business guests who enjoy the atmosphere and hospitality the Publick House offers are returning for overnight stays with their entire families.
The investment in upgraded rooms proved so successful that Siemasko and Verbridge were rehired last year to create a design for the new hotel building. Its plans involve tearing down the white clapboard-style barn that sits next to the Publick House and replacing it with a 21,314-square-foot structure with 28 hotel rooms.
The building will face the street and resemble a Colonial home on a raised, red-brick foundation linked to a red-barn-style structure with a raised stone foundation.
“It will be nestled between the Publick House and Sadie Green’s,” said Rondeau, referring to the retail emporium, jewelry store, and curiosity shop housed in buildings on the property.
“The new lobby will become the hotel registration center and will feature a double-sided wood-burning fireplace with lots of comfortable seating,” she continued. “The design and layout have a lot of character that includes roof gables and a mock hayloft door. We can’t recreate the Publick House, but we’re doing our best to give the new building a historic feel.”
The town’s design review board approved the plan in November, and it will go before the planning board in April.
However, the project was delayed in December when the Historical Commission put the demolition of the existing barn on hold for a year, but Glick said they are working closely with the commission and hope to come up with a compromise that will allow them to move forward this year.
“But the Publick House will continue to serve as the hub of the property,” he said, noting that its two restaurants and historic pub are convenient for overnight guests.
The Publick House is known for its fine food, New England specialties, and bake shop, which does $700,000 in business annually.
Glick noted that the majority of dishes on the menu in the dining room never change and include pot roast, chicken pot pie, lobster pie, and a full turkey dinner with all of the fixings that is offered every day throughout the year.
“People come here and expect to be able to order the foods we’re known for,” he explained.
Indeed, families have been coming there for generations and expect things to stay the same. Glick told BusinessWest that the bakery offers a frosted sugar cookie with a smiley face, and when the chef altered the recipe to make it healthier, they received calls and letters of complaint even though there were no signs alerting people to the slight difference in taste. “So we went back to the original recipe,” he said.
Rondeau added that the Publick House is rooted in tradition, and many grandparents bring their grandchildren there to experience history in the same way they did when they were young.
But ultimately, what all of their guests look for and find is the service, attention to detail, and personal touch that Colonial New England inns were known for.
“We have all the luxuries of a downtown hotel, and the quality of our food drives business here. Until last year, we were never known as a hotel, but that is changing,” Glick said. “We’re targeting business groups of about 50 people, but no matter who our guests are, our focus will always remain on offering them true hospitality.”