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University News

With little fanfare, on-campus Inn checks out

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

She had known for months the inn would be closing, but Jeanne Medeiros was still surprised by the error message when she tried to visit its website — especially since, at that point, the Saunders Inn at Brown was still in business.

So she made a quick phone call.

It turned out web developers had taken down the website for the inn under the impression it had already closed. Medeiros, the inn’s manager, explained that guests still needed to book rooms.

“You might as well just close our doors now,” she said.

“Wow,” exclaimed an inn staff member. “They kind of buried us before we were dead.”

Medeiros started laughing. “I says, ‘Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it.'”

The Brown Inn would shut its doors just a few weeks later. The hotel furniture would be replaced with standard dorm desks and dressers, and the 24 rooms would be assigned to students, primarily rising sophomores.

The change contributed to the University’s goal to add 97 beds on campus as recommended by the Organizational Review Committee in 2010.

Meanwhile, the Gardner House on George Street — which for years has served as the President’s guest house — has been renamed after the Saunders family.

An inn at Brown

The establishment of an inn at Brown dates back to the early 1990s, when the Corporation was discussing the creation of a new quadrangle. The Committee on Facilities and Design decided it could be an opportunity to fill the need for visitor housing, said Donald Saunders ’57, former Corporation trustee and the inn’s eventual namesake.

When the quad opened in 1991, the fifth floor of Building A was designated for guest rooms. The first floor housed a front desk and reception area, said Medeiros, who had worked at the inn since its opening day. But as a tax-exempt entity, the inn was not allowed to compete with other hotels in the area. As a result, it instated a policy that only people affiliated with the University — such as prospective students, department guests, parents or alums — could spend the night.

News of the inn spread quickly, largely by word of mouth. Within three months, demand was so high that administrators expanded the inn to the sixth floor.

The Inn at Brown eventually became the Donald L. Saunders Class of ’57 Family Inn at Brown — though most guests simply called it the Saunders Inn.

Saunders was “the initiator of the concept” but said he was surprised by the renaming. “I was honored that the University would do such a thing to honor my … contributions to Brown, financial and otherwise,” said Saunders, who has spent most of his life in the hotel business.

Despite the name change, things were run essentially as before. And the inn remained a hotel on the top two floors of a dorm in the middle of a college campus — a decidedly atypical location, and one that “adds a whole complication” to the process of running a hotel, said Jason Dexter, a former front desk assistant.

Part of the campus

Take Spring Weekend, for instance. “You could have a hundred half-naked — literally — drunk people running out of the stairwell through the lobby,” Dexter said. For a lot of parents, especially those who came with young children, the sight could come as quite a shock. But, Dexter added, it was part of the risk of staying on campus.

The inn’s proximity to the late-night eatery Josiah’s also meant that guests might have experienced “some rude awakenings” year-round.

But for some guests, these experiences were part of the allure of the Brown Inn. For prospective students, it was a chance to see “what it’s like to be in college.” For alums, it was “this living vicariously thing,” Dexter said. “They’re not in college anymore but they can kind of get a glimmer, remember what it was like — especially if they went to Brown, because then it’s even more attached to their heartstrings.”

Housing students and guests in the same building also required the inn to use a special key system. Guests were given cards for swipe access to the elevator, and instead of pressing buttons for the fifth and sixth floors, guests would have to insert their room keys in an elevator keyhole. Guests were also required to check out by 10:30 a.m. to accommodate the schedule followed by the Department of Facilities Management, said Elena Riverstone, a former clerk.

And as a result, students living in New Dorm did not have much interaction with guests. Charles Limido ’12, who lived below the inn last year, said his interaction was limited to the occasional elevator ride.

But most guests found the conveniences of staying on campus outweighed its disadvantages, Riverstone said. Inn guests did not have to pay for a taxi to campus and could easily attain tips for getting around the University — whether that was the location of the admissions office or a recommendation for dining out.

And though the Brown Inn was “not a four-star hotel,” it always “felt like a family kind of place,” said Judy Tripathi P’04 P’09 P’12. “For me, it was nothing but friendly and convenient,” she said. Tripathi started staying at the Brown Inn in 2000.

For Tripathi, the best part of staying at the inn was spending time with her children without invading their space. Her children would often come to study in her room, and on several occasions, her family ordered take-out from Thayer Street and ate it in the inn. And, even if only one of the children was at Brown at the time, the whole family came to stay.

Before going back to the inn in the evening, “I told my kids I was going to my dorm,” Tripathi said, laughing. “I pretended I was a student.”

“I’m going to miss it terribly,” she said. “Feeling I was part of the campus was kind of a thrill. It was sort of a privilege I didn’t feel I deserved.”

A colorful cast of characters

For Dexter, the front desk assistant, the most memorable part of working at the Brown Inn was what was always changing — the guests. Some were travel-weary and reluctant to socialize, while others were engaging, willing to treat him as more than just “the guy who works the desk.”

“It’s been a fascinating place to be employed, just from meeting great people,” Dexter said.

There was the night when Dexter’s celebrity crush came down in her pajamas and chatted with him for an hour and a half. Then there was the guest so fascinated by Dexter’s interests in animation and programming that he promised to invest if Dexter ever started a company.

And there were some guests who could only be described as “colorful characters,”
Riverstone, the clerk, said. There was the woman who, upon finding a Playboy magazine under her mattress, demanded the inn refund her stay. There was the European count who demanded a discount on a second room, only to leave, decrying Thayer Street as a “sleazy” establishment.

But some of the most meaningful memories were not of specific instances. Instead, they had to do with the inn’s familiar faces.

“You get to know people,” Dexter said. “You pretty much miss them when they’re gone, even though they’re just visiting.”

For many years, the inn held continental breakfasts, through which people who would have likely never met otherwise “actually became very dear friends,” Dexter said.

But in 2008, the inn discontinued the breakfast — one of a string of changes leading up to its gradual end.

Rumors of closing

At first, changes were only organizational. After opening as a unit of Residential Life, the inn was then deemed an auxiliary service before being reclassified and passed back to Residential Life, Medeiros said. In 2008, the inn was placed under the Office of Continuing Education.

The 2008 move was marked by other changes. Parking was no longer complimentary, walls were repainted, bathrooms regrouted, rails put in place — but, Medeiros said, no upgrades were made to hotel furniture, no new bedspreads, no window treatment.

Riverstone said she believes the University may have been discussing the inn’s closing at that time. Paintings taken down were never put back up. Orders for new pillows were never approved.

And every so often, Dexter said, someone would come in and say, “So I hear they’re closing the inn next month.”

Then, in February 2010, the staff read an article in The Herald that quoted then-Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 as saying the University was considering closing the inn to create more undergraduate housing.

“That was a rough way to find out that you’re losing your job,” Dexter said.

Shortly after the article was published, Dexter said, Human Resources met with the staff to apologize, telling them there were no official plans to close the inn.

A few months later, the inn was transferred back to Residential Life at the request of the Organizational Review Committee. In November, the ORC filed a follow-up report that said the “long term status of the Inn” was “still under review.”

Though the Inn was still selling 6,000 bed nights per year, built-in costs were increasing by 5 percent each year.

“We did a good business,” Medeiros said. “But it was getting to the point where you can only raise the rates so much.”

Finally, in late April 2011, the inn staff was officially told the news — Aug. 7 would be the last day of operation.

“It’s clearly been on someone’s agenda for a very long time,” Dexter said. “It wasn’t a punch in the stomach because we had been hearing it forever. It was kind of like ‘Oh, finally.’ But to be honest a little part of me still assumed they had changed their mind.”

Checking out

The news wouldn’t be announced to the entire Brown community for another couple of months, but the staff at the inn began calling the guests who had arranged to stay in the fall. Staff members told them the news, canceled the full houses they had booked for orientation and family weekend and stopped accepting reservations for the fall.

The University announcement came through Morning Mail on June 17.  Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential and dining services, said that putting a blurb in Morning Mail is the standard way of making announcements to the Brown community. But Riverstone said she wished there had been more of an opportunity for people on campus to come say goodbye to the employees and the inn itself.

As for the staff, Riverstone said she might try to retire, while Dexter said he is contemplating a move to Los Angeles or Vancouver for various jobs, or else a return to his hometown. Medeiros said she might try to secure another job at the University.

Though some guests will still be housed in a new, down-sized Brown Inn on George Street, Medeiros said there probably would not be enough room to meet the demand, even just for department guests.

But Riverstone said she understood the University’s need to expand undergraduate housing. “The Inn has provided a real service,” she said. “I don’t think they would close it if there wasn’t such a dire need.”


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