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Posted February 26, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Wayside may go up for auction

Wayside Inn
Wayside Inn in Middletown, the nation's oldest continuously operated inn, may be auctioned off in the spring. Rich Cooley/Daily

Longtime owners contemplating sale of the historic inn to ensure its survival

By James Heffernan — Daily Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN — The owners of the Wayside Inn are taking a hard look at their bottom line and are not ruling out an estate sale in the spring to ensure its survival.

Ami Aronson, managing director of the Washington-based Bernstein Family Foundation, said Wednesday the group has hired a company to assess the “marketability” of the inn, which has operated without interruption since 1797.

“We have a system in place, but nothing formal has been signed,” she said when asked about the prospect of the property being sold at auction.

If a change in ownership does take place, it would mark the first time in a half-century that the property would be in the hands of someone outside of the Bernstein family. The Bernstein foundation, which includes the children and grandchildren of longtime Wayside owner Leo M. Bernstein, assumed control of the inn following his death in August.

“It’s been in our family for 50 years,” Aronson said, “but at a certain point you have to look out for its best interests. … We’re not in the position to keep it going without looking at the bottom line.

“We’ve got to be much more lean and mean. Our goal is not to close it, but the point is, how do you preserve my grandfather’s legacy and celebrate the unique aspect of the oldest continuously operating inn in America?”

Aronson said the foundation is looking for a buyer “who has a passion for history and someone who knows how to run a [bed and breakfast].”

“My grandfather had a passion for this,” she said. “It was a labor of love.”

Mayor Mark Brown remains concerned about the inn’s future.

He said he recently spoke with foundation member Adam Bernstein, who indicated that the group was planning “to divest themselves of the property” for financial reasons.

Brown said he was “surprised, but not that surprised,” by the plans, adding that working in the town office, “you do see the [tax] revenue from various businesses.”

The Wayside’s owners were not behind on payments, he said, but the business has had to cut back its hours in recent months.

In November, the inn and its dining room began closing on Mondays and Tuesdays, and its 24 guest rooms and suites are now available only on Friday and Saturday nights.

“I would venture to say that they were just not making the profit margins they had expected,” Brown said. “Whoever buys it will probably pick it up at a bargain price right now.”

Aronson said the economy is one of several contributing factors, as consumers have cut back on travel and overnight stays, and traffic at the inn has slowed to a trickle.

The Wayside continues to operate five days a week, welcoming visitors interested in history and antiques, and serving lunch, dinner and a traditional Sunday brunch. It is also busy gearing up for the pivotal wedding season.

The Wayside serves as a historical resource and an important attraction for Middletown, Brown said.

“It has managed to weather many storms over the years, including the Civil War. Hopefully, that will be the case again, and the new owners will take it in hand like Mr. Bernstein did when he came to town and bring it back to its glory.”

A Washington banker with a bent for historic preservation, Leo Bernstein discovered the crumbling inn one day in May 1960 while driving through Middletown. Within hours, he had purchased the property and soon after began restoring it and filling it with antiques. Over the years, Bernstein used the Wayside as a hub for his local business operations and a venue for discussions of history.

He later founded the Wayside Foundation of American History and Arts, which operates the Museum of American Presidents, the Stonewall Jackson Museum and Crystal Caverns in Strasburg. He also helped salvage the Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood, the Battletown Inn in Berryville and the Hotel Strasburg.

In an interview last month, Wayside General Manager Jennifer Anderson said she is hopeful that the economy will begin to pick up, and that Wayside can return to normal operations.

Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com

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