509 Pollock St.,
There was no reason for Beth and John Blackwelder of Atlanta to question their timing when they bought The Aerie Luxury Inn & Event Center in New Bern, North Carolina, in late 2019.
The city was thriving, and its cultural life and nightlife were taking off. Though a bit threadbare, the Aerie was an established brand in New Bern, a historic riverfront town founded in 1710 on just about everyone’s radar—retirees, history buffs, antiquers, veterans, boaters, outdoor lovers, and people who simply enjoy the area’s beauty.
Just around the corner was COVID-19, which threw a monkey wrench into just about everyone’s plans.
For the Blackwelders, it showed what they are made of.
The Blackwelders obtained a payroll protection loan to keep their staff at work but lacking guests, they looked for other ways to keep their small staff busy.
Their housekeeper is a gifted seamstress, so they put her to work making protective masks—hundreds so far, donated to hospitals in New Bern and Atlanta.
They also hosted a breakfast for firefighters, a way of saying thank-you to people who put their lives on the line for others.
Not that the Blackwelders were trying to get noticed, but they did.
Go and Do Good (goanddogood.com), a travel blog, features inns and hotels that are not just good, but DO good. Its list is short, just 16 venues around the nation, and one of them is The Aerie.
“… The Aerie’s owners are offering health care workers who need a clean place to stay to keep from infecting their families a room at The Aerie. Having worked in nursing and having a daughter on the front lines of the pandemic, the owners feel fortunate to be able to give back in this way.”
As the world adjusts to life with COVID-19, business has started to return to normal for The Aerie, and the Blackwelders are getting back to their original plans.
From Charlotte originally, where they met during their college days, the Blackwelders spent the last 25 years in Atlanta, where Beth worked in nursing (their daughter is also a nurse and still lives in Atlanta) and John was in construction product sales.
The seed of their career as innkeepers was planted on their honeymoon at a bed & breakfast. They stayed at many bed & breakfasts over the following years and eventually decided they wanted to get into the business for themselves.
They attended a conference in Asheville and, completing that, began a search between Maryland and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“We wanted to get back to the Carolinas,” John said.
One Wednesday in July 2019, they visited New Bern.
They looked at The Aerie, which was for sale, but John said they didn’t fall in love with the house, which needed a lot of work. They did fall in love with New Bern.
They had been to New Bern before and decided they liked the potential of this established and growing town with its emerging cultural scene.
“We were shocked how many were out on a Wednesday,” John said. “I immediately thought that there’s something going on to get so many people out on a Wednesday night.”
“There’s an energy to it,” Beth said. “You can tell it’s going to grow. We did a lot of research before we jumped into this. It has to be in a place you love.”
They arrived for good on Nov. 22, 2019, and hit the ground running.
“We had to start even before that because of Christmas, and we were on the Holiday Tour,” Beth said, referring to an event that showcased New Bern’s B&Bs.
The Blackwelders shut down after the holidays to begin the much-needed overhaul of the house.
John summed it up this way: He saw a child taking a picture of The Aerie from the sidewalk. The child told him he loved taking pictures of haunted houses.
There were updates and repairs needed inside and water damage outside. Between all that and the landscaping, it continues to be a work in progress.
They started with renovations of the common areas and three rooms, spending more than $100,000 for the improvements, Beth said.
The renovation work also revealed a gem. On the second floor beneath old carpet and plywood, was wide-plank pine heartwood that just needed to see the light of day—and a little refinishing.
Business has rebounded over the summer, with visitors coming from Raleigh, Wilmington, Kinston, and other regional cities, looking for a change in scenery after the long COVID-19 seclusion.
“A young couple was invited to a wedding but it was canceled. They came anyway,” Beth said. “They left the kids at home.”
During the age of COVID-19, the Blackwelders and their staff make sure guests are safe, from passing strict Health Department inspections, to washing exposed surfaces with bleach, to staggering breakfast servings so guests maintain safe distancing.
The Aerie, located at 509 Pollock St., was built between 1870, when it first showed up on county tax records, and 1882. The Italianate Victorian is known by historians as the Street-Ward residence.
Michael and Marty Gunhus bought it in 2002 and built The Aerie brand over the next 15 years before they sold it in 2017. It changed hands and management several times before the Blackwelders bought it in late 2019.
The Aerie is within the Downtown Historic District of New Bern. The Main House has seven rooms featuring distinctive designs and modern amenities. A Guest House across the street retains the traditional Victorian theme with two dog-friendly guest suites and a meeting room for gatherings or business meetings.
Off-street parking is available for both buildings.
The Aerie is a short walk to historic Tryon Palace, New Bern Riverfront Convention Center, and the entire downtown.