Urban Oasis

New York: Brooklyn's Akwaaba Mansion pampers its guests with comfortable elegance and Afrocentric flair.

March 24, 2002|By DONNA M. OWENS | DONNA M. OWENS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Michelle Wise was looking for a romantic getaway weekend to surprise her boyfriend recently, she did an Internet search for "bed and breakfast." Then she added the words "African American."

"I really wasn't sure what was out there," says the 35-year-old New Castle, Del., resident.

What she found was the African American Association of Innkeepers International, which led her to the Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Akwaaba is one of six inns that helped launch the association in 1997. The group works to increase awareness of black-owned inns, set quality standards and provide resources for aspiring innkeepers.

"We want places where we'll feel welcome and comfortable," says Daniel Edwards, the group's president and proprietor of Morehead Manor in Durham, N.C.

Today, the association has 24 member inns, including Phoenix Risin' in Bolton Hill.

"We are growing because there is a need for us," Edwards says of the association. "African-American travelers are just like everyone else in wanting quality, alternative lodging."

When travelers think of inns, many envision beautiful manors set amid rolling hills, perhaps tucked away in small towns or seaside hamlets.

Akwaaba Mansion, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is decidedly urban. You won't see many rolling hills in these parts, unless you count the steep stairs that descend into the nearby subway station.

Akwaaba offers more than a traditional B&B. Along with sumptuous lodging and personalized attention comes the added appeal of cultural immersion and Afrocentric flair.

That mix appealed to innkeepers Monique Greenwood and Glenn Pogue, the husband-and-wife team who live and work inside the 18-room mansion with their 10-year-old daughter, Glynn.

In 1995, the couple purchased what was then a vacant, fire-damaged 1860s Italianate villa. The restoration process took nearly a year and involved an overhaul -- new plumbing, rewiring, painting, cleaning and landscaping.

Today, the honey-tinted and cream-trimmed mansion is palatial and beautiful. It is also a symbol of pride.

"The reason I decided to become an innkeeper was twofold," says Greenwood, an entrepreneur, civic activist and author who is familiar to many black women as the former editor in chief of Essence magazine.

The inn, she explains, "combined my personal passions, like meeting new people, entertaining, decorating and architecture."

She adds, "It was also a way to do away with the ... negative perceptions people have about urban communities like this one, where many black-owned inns are located. I wanted them to see the beauty, as I do."

Akwaaba (pronounced ah-qua-buh) is located in historic Stuy-vesant Heights, a designated landmark district of several blocks, marked by chocolate-colored street signs.

Brimming with character, this enclave of black professionals, many of whom are second- and third-generation residents, has tree-lined streets and well-maintained townhouses that date to the turn of the last century.

It seems a fitting locale for an inn whose name means "welcome" in a language spoken in Ghana.

Island in the city

The inn feels like an urban oasis; its yard is filled with chestnut and magnolia trees and purple wisteria, and light streams through 52 French windows on the wraparound sun porch.

Inside, the glossy parquet floors have inlaid designs. Crystal chandeliers and white marble fireplaces fill nearly every room. There is a sweeping mahogany staircase that leads to a 40-foot-long ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows, hand-carved doors from Nigeria and baby grand and concert pianos.

The inn blends Victorian elegance and African-American chic. A cluster of antique couches and chairs in the parlor are upholstered in African textiles, while the adjoining dining room has an original cast-iron radiator that doubles as a food warmer.

Throughout, there are African artifacts and African-American art, along with black memorabilia and cultural touches like soapstone eggs from Kenya.

"I had a lot of fun decorating," says Greenwood, an avid collector of antiques and black memorabilia. "I was able to completely furnish it in no time because I had so much stuff."

The Akwaaba bed and breakfast experience is designed to be more than aesthetically pleasing, however.

The staff -- Greenwood; her husband; Nina Burke, who handles reservations and does housekeeping; and family friend Benita Wynn, who sometimes helps out -- does everything from arranging tours to making dinner reservations and scheduling in-room massage for guests.

"I think we really have something to prove, not just with the neighborhood but our inn," says Greenwood.

"We do turndown service, put chocolates on the nightstand. At breakfast we'll prepare a vegetarian meal. I personally light the candles, run the bubble bath for couples," she says.

"Sometimes I look back and think, 'Wow, I'd like someone to do that for me.' "

Each of the four guest suites has its own theme, with coordinating decor, furnishings and reading materials.

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