For Debbie and David Schwartz, it was the history of 2920 Elliott Street and the hip, funky neighborhood that spurred them to open Canton's sole bed and breakfast several months ago.
But it was Debbie's mom who influenced the inn's theme.
"My mom is allergic to everything," said Debbie Schwartz, 31, a marketing consultant. "She always has to stay at hotels when she visits me and my brother because we both have cats, and I wanted her to be, well, home for the holidays. I wanted all the family in one place for once."
So, within nine months, the couple transformed the building at Curley and Elliott streets that once had a tawdry reputation -- local lore had it that sailors frequented an upstairs bordello -- into the Inn at 2920, a chic, spa-like refuge from things that make people itch, cough or sneeze.
Both Debbie and David, who have been married for six years, were tired of moving -- from Florida to Georgia to Maryland -- and were searching for something more meaningful in life. David, a 33-year-old chef, had grown weary of the corporate atmosphere of the hotel industry where he had worked for more than a decade, often spending as much as 16 hours a day away from his wife. Opening the four-room inn meant achieving his goal to own his own business, where he could nurture friends and guests, practice his culinary art and still earn a living.
In the early summer of 2000, the couple traveled from their home in Severn to visit Canton -- Nacho Mama's to be exact -- following the recommendation of a Food Network's The Best of episode. They fell in love with the eclectic neighborhood.
By late that evening, Debbie said, they had made a decision. "I remember sitting by the waterside and looking at David across the table and saying, 'I don't care what we have to do, we are going to live here.' "
A colorful history
Kim Stallwood, Canton Community Association president, said that the inn "speaks well to what Canton is all about."
To Debbie, it was the vibrant restaurant scene, the feel of a tight-knit community and the beautiful, nearby waterfront that attracted her to Canton. After several house-scouting jaunts, a small, hand-lettered for-sale sign in the window at 2920 Elliott Street drew them to their new home.
David's research showed that since the 1920s the rowhouse had been home to several taverns, including the legendary Blue Lantern, and had many owners. But it was what earlier renovators discovered that David said bolstered neighbors' stories that the location had once housed a bordello.
A honeycomb of 20 or 30 rooms was uncovered on the second and third floors shortly before the Schwartzes moved in. David himself found a tiny shower with remnants of marble flooring just off the alley entrance. Next to it stood a steep ladder, the only staircase to the second floor.
David theorized that because the old taverns had been located in the front of the building, but the shower and staircase in the back, off the alley, those who climbed the rickety ladder to the mysterious rooms must have wanted to remain anonymous.
"I can just see sailors pulling into port and slinking up those stairs to the bordello," he said.
Both the shower and the ladder have been demolished to create the innkeepers' quarters, where the couple live.
The Schwartzes began renovations on the 3,800-square-foot rowhouse late in the summer of 2000. David estimated they spent more than $100,000 on top of their $345,000 mortgage -- far more than they expected. But a low-interest, community-revitalization loan from the city helped pull the project together at the last minute.
"It must have been meant to be or this never would have worked," David said. "I had never done renovations before, I had no idea how city zoning worked. I just winged it as I went along."
In the end, he said, it was Debbie's business planning -- her yin to his yang -- that pulled them through.
Inside, an oasis
But the toxins of such a high-stress life are left at the inn's door. To create their sanctuary, the Schwartzes painted the walls with a dust-controlling gloss, lined the king- and queen-sized beds in all-cotton sheets, and purify the inn's air. They stock the bathrooms with botanical soaps and wash linens in hypo-allergenic detergent. Smoking is not permitted, and a $250 fine applies to those who ignore the rule.
In keeping with the Zen-like approach to their venture business, David whips up breakfast from farmers' market finds: fresh fruit salad with a hint of cumin and vanilla yogurt, or French toast made from organic brioche. He often accents his dishes with herbs grown in his bay-window garden, anchored by an olive tree.