Shaping a dream into a hard-won success

If you have dreams of running an idyllic little country inn far from the madding crowd, consult Susan Norris. She will add a few hard facts to your fantasy. She will urge you to proceed only if you don't mind hard labor and only if you also have a sense of humor, diplomacy, business, and the power to stick to the hostelry, no matter what.

She knows because she has been running a country inn in the village of Mendocino on California's rugged northern coast for six years. She feels she is only now emerging as a seasoned and knowledgeable owner.

Susan Norris's nonbackground for innkeeping included several years as a far-flying flight supervisor for Pan American Airways, and, after her marriage to San Francisco stockbroker Bill Norris, a fling at selling real estate in the San Francisco-Sausolito area. Not much there prepared her for renovating, decorating, cooking, cleaning, bookkeeping, and what later became a plunge into local political life to help preserve the unique character of her adopted village of Mendocino, the whole of which has been named a national historic district.

With other preservationists, Mrs. Norris has been trying to hold back the tides of change and tourism that she feels would irretrievably destroy the fragile fabric and feeling of the town. She endorses those bumper stickers that read "Don't Carmel-ize Mendocino!"

"It was in 1974," she recalls, "that we heard about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy the elegant MacCallum House, built in 1882 in Mendocino. The Victorian mansion, all 5,000 square feet of it, came complete with all its furnishings, a wash basin in every bedroom, and a white picket fence outfront. We bought it impetuously, and as sheer innocents, to run as an inn. I envisioned myself making pancakes for guests in the kitchen while Bill held forth as genial host in the parlor. All we actually knew about inns, however, we had gained from sampling ski pensionsm when we were collegians in New England."

Their story, Mrs. Norris says, "has got to be the classic example of the young couple, trying to make a break from the 'conventional life style' by getting into a joint business laced with love and happiness. Lenders, we soon discovered, did not look fondly on young couples going into a line of work about which they knew nothing. Their reluctance cost us $17,000 annually in interest and caused us to take in a couple of partners which we soon had to buy out when we could least afford it."

Mrs. Norris and her infant daughter Alison moved into the eight-bedroom mansion, while husband Bill retained his job in the city to keep some income flowing. The ghostly house had not been lived in for 20 years, so it was like walking into a museum. Unanswered mail in the desk and magazines around the place were all dated 1954. There was the eerie feeling that Mrs. MacCallum had just stepped out to walk the dog one evening and never returned.

"Knowing no one in town was a drawback, too, because local people thought we were in a class with the Rockefellers and had come loaded with money. They gave bids accordingly," Mrs. Norris remembers. Local men bid from $4,500 to $6,600 to paint the house, so she finally brought up a man from Marin County who did it for $3,500. She herself worked for a year painting, wallpapering, and redecorating the rooms, taking in local roomers for $30 a week while she put the house in order. Since that grueling first year, she has gradually also converted the greenhouse, the carriage house, the water tower, the gazebo, and the barn into guest rooms, gaining a total of 20 guest accommodations.

Problems at the beginning were manifold. "We got sued for sinking a well without a permit, which no one knew we required. A sprinkler system cost us another lawsuit and $40,000. Basic insurance costs were staggering. The accountant we hired to keep our business affairs straight was convicted of fraud and left town in a hurry. The first restaurant manager-cook we hired spent thousands on the kitchen and then left in six weeks, leaving me in charge of the cooking until a new manager could be found. So you can see why we felt like urban aliens with culture shock," she says, looking back at the pitfalls that preceded the inn's current stability and success.

Somewhere amid the shoals, the marriage ended. Mr. Norris went back to city living, and Susan Norris stuck with the ship, determined to see her inn make good.

It took four years to show a $2,000 profit after taxes. Only now is she beginning to reap the benefits of the investment of time, elbow grease, and grief. So much money was pouring out for so long that for years she found it painful to write a check. Now she sees the rewards of her labor. More and more people are coming, the occupancy rate continues to rise, and weekends are sellouts.

"My place has evolved its own character. It's no city-slick operation," Susan Norris explains candidly. "For some it is pure delight, tranquil, atmospheric, restful. For others, it is lacking everything they think a hotel should have, and they find the idea of sharing a bathroom inconceivable. I don't try to defend the drawbacks any more. I just refund their money with a smile and apologize that it is not what they wanted. I learned as an airline hostess never to argue with the customer. I've learned, too, about how to pace myself and conserve my energies. Living with my daughter Alison in a house two miles down the road is one important way. It gives me a place to retreat from guests, employees, and demands."

For over two years, Mrs. Norris has been a member of the county's Citizens Advisory Committee for drafting a new plan for the town and its environs. "We're trying very hard to keep Mendocino a very special residential community where visitors can walk around leisurely and enjoy the homes, open spaces, art galleries, shops, and restaurants," she says.

The town was founded about the time of the California Gold Rush. It was famous for its lumber and fishing industries and during its heydey had about 3, 500 residents. For decades its cluster of buildings, blending New England Colonial and Victorian styles, has remained intact, fairly inaccessible, and outside the mainstream of history. Today, the permanent population of the town is about 1,100 people, plenty of whom are jealously guarding its authentic early-day character.

Susan Norris, who has put herself in the front line of battle, has affiliated herself with both Preservation Action! and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, both headquartered in Washington, D.C., to help stay abreast of how to renovate old properties, such as inns, and how to preserve whole towns, such as Mendocino.

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