by Iza Wojciechowska
photography by Justin Kase Conder
Two years ago, an old house in downtown Raleigh was slated for demolition, with a big development planned to go in its place. But with the help of a historical commission, a remote control, and long nights and weekends filled with blood, sweat, and tears, that old house got a second chance. Moved a few blocks down and transformed into a boutique hotel, Guest House Raleigh now offers visitors a unique experience, blending history with bright, minimalist rooms, a downtown view, and distinctive Raleigh accents.
Guest House is the project of local husband-and-wife team Matt Tomasulo and Nicole Alvarez, who wanted to give back to the city that brought them together and gave them a community. The eight-room home is Raleigh’s first boutique hotel, but as Alvarez puts it, “it’s not your grandma’s bed and breakfast.” With a big porch and charming exterior, the house fits right in on S. Bloodworth Street, which is largely residential, though it’s just a five-minute walk from downtown’s Moore Square and City Market.
As visitors enter, they first walk into the 1,218-square-foot historic home, which has been lovingly restored and furnished while retaining its original structure, wood floors (preserved for more than a century beneath carpet, linoleum, and layers of newspaper!), windows, now-exposed ceiling joists, and fireplace. The first floor is common space, and the entire second floor of the historic house is a two-room guest suite. The original back door now leads into the Guest House’s 2,775-square-foot modern addition, which Alvarez, an architect at Clearscapes, designed herself in collaboration with the firm. The place is flooded with natural light, and the clean white lines, ubiquitous green plants, and thoughtful decor make it soothing and welcoming, not to mention Instagram-ready. The first floor of the addition has three guest rooms and a large, open kitchen. The second floor has four more rooms, including another large suite with a balcony, double shower, and skyline view. A garden out back features outdoor furniture, an imposing 125-year-old pecan tree, and a patio made of bricks repurposed from a chimney that collapsed in the house’s move.
The Guest House opened its doors in September, and it’s clear that the hotel has been a labor of love for Tomasulo and Alvarez—love for the project, for each other, for Raleigh, and for the guests they get to share it with. “The idea of being hosts really excited us,” Tomasulo says. “We want to share Raleigh with people who aren’t from here.” Alvarez agrees. “We want to be able to give personal recommendations on how to have a unique experience when you come. It really is a guest house for Raleigh residents, whose guests are in good hands if they come and stay here.”
Old History and New Ideas
Tomasulo, 36, and Alvarez, 32, met as graduate students at the N.C. State College of Design. Alvarez, originally from Cary, recently worked on projects in Raleigh such as Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda. Tomasulo’s background is in landscape architecture and city planning, and he’s worked on a number of walkability and bikeability projects in the Triangle. In 2015, he ran for Raleigh City Council, and Alvarez worked as his campaign manager. Although he didn’t win, the experience made the couple think harder—and more enthusiastically—about what it means to live in Raleigh.
“Running for Council, we got to meet a lot of people who really love and care about and are invested in Raleigh as a place and a community,” Tomasulo says. “It expanded our community and excited us to double down on Raleigh.”
After the election, Tomasulo and Alvarez were keeping an open mind about how to engage with their passion for the city. When they learned that the Raleigh Historic Development Commission and Preservation North Carolina were fighting to save two century-old houses on Lenoir Street, they got to thinking. The commissions won, and the houses would eventually be moved to empty lots on Bloodworth Street to be sold as single-family homes.
The house that is now Guest House was built in the 1880s and owned by Arthur and Annie Gorham. Arthur Gorham was Raleigh’s first African American mail carrier, and Annie Gorham was a teacher. Their daughter, Addie, inherited the house and lived in it her whole life, housing Shaw University students.
“There’s so much history already behind the house, and we started to see that it would be a shame for it to only be a house, this big property, really close to downtown in a thriving historic district,” Alvarez says. “So we put our heads together and tried to see what Raleigh didn’t have.”
The answer was a boutique hotel. Tomasulo and Alvarez travel a lot—and more often to cities than to beaches or mountains, they say. For them, staying in a carefully curated, thoughtfully built hotel makes sense—and they could see that Raleigh would benefit.
From Gorham House to Guest House
For nearly a year, Tomasulo and Alvarez told themselves that if they received this approval, or passed that hurdle, they’d keep going. In fall 2016, all the agreements fell into place, they were given the house, and they purchased the Bloodworth property with restrictive covenants. “We were laughing, like, ‘Great, we own a piece of property and a house. Now we’ve just got to put them together,’” says Alvarez.
In February 2017, the Gorham house was lifted off its foundation, mounted on wheels, and in a surreal scene, maneuvered the few blocks through downtown Raleigh using a remote control. (The second house was also moved and now sits next door to the Guest House.) The next year and a half was spent settling the house onto its new foundation, acquiring permits, restoring the house, and building the addition. Though neither Tomaluso nor Alvarez had hotel experience, they approached the project methodically. They traveled to comparable hotels in similar cities to figure out what was important to them: minimalism, functionality, and plants and natural light in every room.
“We really wanted it to be the quality of a hotel, where we took a lot of care with the construction,” Alvarez says. “But we still wanted it to feel like a home, since it is a house at the end of the day.”The care and detail comes across in elements like skylights, shock- and sound-absorbent ceilings, well-positioned light switches, and an outdoor watering system that uses diverted stormwater.
But even though the addition is quite modern, Tomasulo and Alvarez have taken care not to lose sight of the historic aspect of the Gorham house, softening detailing around doors and windows, for instance, or furnishing it simply. During the restoration process, Tomasulo and Alvarez found bundles of postcards and Christmas cards hidden in the fireplace. They hope to exhibit them, along with newspapers that had preserved the wood floors and a brief history of the Gorhams and their house.
A Love Note to Raleigh
It’s been a long two years for Tomasulo and Alvarez, and they can’t wait to share the Raleigh they love. In addition to offering something of a Raleigh concierge service, the hotel showcases collaborations with local artists and businesses and is studded with accents that bring the city to life. “This is almost like our love note to Raleigh,” Tomasulo says.
The local touches are everywhere: custom railings and a kitchen island by Tactile, a dried branch installation by Wylde Flowers, a large-scale painting by Jason Craighead, and decor from Port of Raleigh and Holder Home.
“We wanted to be able to add to Raleigh, to round out the experience, and to be able to collaborate with our friends,” Alvarez says. “That’s part of what inspired us.” The kitchen will also be stocked with local goodies, including Benchwarmers bagels from Transfer Co. Food Hall, Videri chocolates, and coffee from Counter Culture and Slingshot.
After sharing the journey and process online for the past couple years, Guest House opened its doors to a booked-solid first few weeks. “All the hard work has kind of paid off. The greatest compliments are when people are like, ‘It feels like this has always been here,’” Tomasulo says. “We’re excited to share it with people.”