Natchez inn blooms

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 30, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Awards, honors and accolades for Monmouth Plantation continue to shower the small luxury inn standing on the corner of John A. Quitman Boulevard and Melrose Avenue.

Monmouth has won a four-diamond rating from AAA; selection to Top 500 Hotels of the World by &8220;Travel and Leisure&8221;; inclusion in Zagat&8217;s &8220;Top 50 U.S. Inns and B&Bs&8221;; and selection by American Historic Inns as &8220;One of the Top Ten Most Romantic Inns of the Year.&8221; And there is more.

Newspapers and magazines have labeled the inn as elegant, opulent, luxurious and classy.

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Owners Ron and Lani Riches take the attention paid to Monmouth as great compliments to the staff, most of whom have been employed at Monmouth for years.

&8220;It&8217;s a combination of our continuing to look for new ways of doing things and having a staff that is loving and caring,&8221; Ron Riches said. &8220;I think the staff has grown with the concept we have had for Monmouth.&8221;

The house and grounds also are open for tours, during Spring Pilgrimage on the Blue Tour, with future Pilgrimage dates of March 27 and 31 and April 4, 8 and 12, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Many partners have assisted them in the restoration of the antebellum mansion and its development into a bed-and-breakfast establishment and then into a historic inn and small luxury hotel, Ron said.

&8220;Our most wonderful person was Marguerite Guercio,&8221; he said. Lani Riches added, &8220;She put us on the map with her love and hospitality.&8221;

Guercio spent many years at Monmouth. Other employees still there have an average of 16 to 17 years with the inn.

As a young couple from Los Angeles, Ron and Lani Riches visited Natchez in the 1970s and fell in love with the city and the friendliness of the people.

With two small daughters, they decided Natchez would be a good place to have a second home. While their friends were buying homes in a prestigious California neighborhood, they decided to buy Monmouth, which at the time was in a deteriorated state both outside and inside.

&8220;We purchased Monmouth on Valentine&8217;s Day in 1978,&8221; Ron Riches said. &8220;At first, we thought about moving here, even interviewed at Trinity School for our daughters.&8221;

Weighing his opportunities in Los Angeles, where he is a real estate developer and manager, he decided the family should maintain their California residence while also establishing their presence in Natchez as business, social and civic contributors.

Their ideas for Monmouth took shape slowly and carefully, with help from Natchez friends who guided them in restoration, design and concept.

&8220;At first, we were not thinking about an inn,&8221; Lani Riches said. &8220;It was going to be a second home.&8221;

What they knew for sure was that they wanted to restore the 1818-era house to its original splendor and that they wanted to be a part of Natchez.

Ron and Mimi Miller guided them in restoration decisions. Buzz Harper assisted in interior design. Danny Smith was contractor for the project and has continued to oversee every new addition or restoration during the 28 years since the restoration began. And Bill Garbo designed landscaping on the 26 acres that surround the inn.

&8220;I wanted everything to be perfect, just the way it had been when General Quitman lived here,&8221; Ron Riches said.

In the slave quarters behind the house, where they would design the first bed-and-breakfast guest rooms, he imagined the furnishings as simple and simulating how the servants at a Natchez mansion might have lived.

&8220;Buzz said absolutely not. He told me, &8216;they may want to stay overnight in the slave quarters but they want to sleep like the master,&8217;&8221; Ron said.

From the first five luxuriously appointed rooms, the inn continued to grow over the years. Today it includes 30 rooms and suites and a conference room for meetings and executive retreats.

As Monmouth expanded, &8220;it took on a personality of its own,&8221; Ron said. &8220;I knew a little about restoration. Lani knew something about interior design. But we didn&8217;t know anything about running an inn or hotel.&8221;

It kept evolving naturally, Lani said, &8220;from a little bed and breakfast to an inn where we have dinners, conferences, weddings and meetings.&8221;

The adventure has been a joy and a labor of love, she said. And Monmouth provided a way for them to have a part in the founding of a hot-air balloon race and a music festival in Natchez.

Both events, the Natchez Festival of Music and the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race are important annual events in Natchez that have origins over dinners held at Monmouth where key people and ideas came together.

&8220;We have received beautiful awards and have had a lot of famous people stay here, from ex-presidents and senators to tons of movie people, and they know we will protect their privacy,&8221; she said.

&8220;But the most importanat thing to me are the repeat guests, the ones who spent their honeymoons here and are saving up to come back on their 10th anniversaries.&8221;

Being a part of Natchez is important to them, Ron said. &8220;But being a part of Mississippi is important, too. It took me 15 years to start buying property in Mississippi, and now I have a wonderful business partner in Spike Newman.&8221;

Natchez has the opportunity to thrive as an entire community, Ron said. &8220;We would thrive like few people could imagine if only we would not constantly bicker, if we made decisions on one single thought &8212; what&8217;s best for Natchez.&8221;

Lani&8217;s dream is that one day Natchez can hire a top-flight public relations company to promote the city.

Natchez has far more to offer than Williamsburg, Charleston or Savannah, she said. &8220;Nowhere else in the South can touch Natchez for hospitality,&8221; she said.