The Greystone Inn, a popular hotel on Lake Toxaway in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has been purchased by Shannon and Geoff Ellis, who own and operate The Willcox.
The Greystone closed three years ago, ostensibly for renovations by then-owners Natural Retreats, but never re-opened, and went on the market. After well over a year of due diligence, the Ellises closed on the property November 1.
According to the Ellises, The Greystone will have 30 guest rooms, as well as a restaurant, spa, meeting space and beautiful Lake Toxaway. Almost every room will have either a replace, view of the lake, or private deck. Renovations on all the rooms are already under way, and so are reservations. The Greystone Inn will open in the spring of 2018, with three weddings already on the calendar.
Much like the history of Aiken, Lake Toxaway was a destination place for captains of industry in the early 20th century. The Vanderbilts, Firestones, Edisons, Fords, Reynolds, and many others spent much of their summers at The Toxaway Inn, a 250- room luxury hotel similar to the Highland Park Hotel in Aiken.
Enter Lucy Armstrong
George and Lucy Camp Armstrong of Savannah had been frequent guests at the inn, but it was Lucy who became enchanted with the area known as America’s Switzerland. The area, surrounded by mountains, more than one million now-protected acres, and 250 waterfalls, reminded her of the lakes and mountains she had enjoyed in her world travels.
Strong-willed Lucy wanted to build a summer home on the lake, but her skeptical husband encouraged her to “camp” there one summer to see whether her resolve would last the season. In 1912, Lucy purchased 40 acres on a secluded peninsula on the lake and built a hardwood floor platform with a 2,000-square- foot tent over it – the “Lucy” way of camping – and also put up a smaller tent nearby for 11 servants. At the end of the summer, having proved her mettle, Lucy and her husband engaged architects Hentz and Reid of Atlanta to design a permanent home, a magnificent 16,000-square-foot mansion on six levels called Hillmont, now on the National Historic Registry.
Unfortunately, in 1916, torrential rains from three successive summer hurricanes weakened the earthen dam that formed the lake, and it broke, freeing more than nine billion gallons of water to rush over Toxaway Falls down the 16-mile gorge in a 30-foot-high wall of water. Advance warning about the possibility of the dam’s breaking explains why there were no casualties except for one blind mule. However, Lake Toxaway dried up, and without the lake, the inn closed and the small community’s economy was devastated. Nevertheless, the Armstrongs continued their summer sojourns to Hillmont.
After her husband’s death in 1924, Lucy made Hillmont her permanent home. Her second marriage to North Carolina lumber magnate Carl Moltz proved to be a happy one and lasted from 1930 until his death in 1961. A well-respected figure in the community, she created temporary jobs on the estate to provide work during the years of the Depression. She also taught young women cooking, sewing and homemaking, and sent more than 20 children of her staff to college at her own expense if they had B-averages or better in school.
The still-vacant Toxaway Inn was razed in 1948, but during the early 1960s, new area developers rebuilt the dam to restore Lake Toxaway. Longtime local residents said the similarity to the original lake was remarkable. The restoration of the lake and other land improvements revived interest in America’s Switzerland area, and tourism increased. In 1963, Lucy sold Hillmont and moved to a smaller, more manageable house across the lake. She died in 1970 at the age of 87.
Hillmont Becomes The Greystone Inn
In 1985, Hillmont was sold to Timothy and Boo Boo Lovelace who renamed the great edifice and repurposed it as The Greystone Inn. They operated it until 2013.
“The Lovelaces created a beautiful atmosphere of hospitality,” said Shannon. “Up there everyone has stories about how special the area is, and also stories about The Greystone, just as in Aiken, people talk about how special Aiken is and many feel a connection to The Willcox. The hotel belongs to the community. We call The Willcox the living room of the community and feel the same is true for The Greystone.”
“Lake Toxaway is the largest privately owned lake in North Carolina,” said Geoff. “It covers 640 acres with 14 miles of shoreline, surrounded by mountains. It’s very special and when The Greystone was open, it attracted people from all over the world to stay in the hotel. The restaurant and spa, however, have never been open to the public.
“The Willcox and The Greystone are similar in that there were many people in the community who did not feel welcome. There was a steep learning curve when we opened The Willcox, and we expect to learn a lot from opening The Greystone as well. The one thing that we’re confident about is the importance of allowing the community to enjoy the property. The Greystone plays a special role in the history of the area, it’s meant to be enjoyed by everyone, and for the first time ever, The Greystone will be open to the public,” he explained.
The Greystone enjoys a unique relationship with Lake Toxaway Country Club, only a stone’s throw away, that allows guests of the inn access to the 18-hole golf course, five clay tennis courts, two croquet courts, and the Tom Fazio Learning Center. “This allows The Greystone to operate as a resort,” Shannon said. “There’s hiking, boating, fishing, water sports, and in the winter we hope to have a skating rink, and even re pits where you can make S’Mores!”
The New Stewards of The Greystone
Natural Retreats, the previous owners, saw The Greystone as a development opportunity. Having operated the Inn for two years, they believed there was more money to be made in subdividing the property and selling lots.
“While we appreciate how enticing it would be to make a big profit with a development deal, it’s not what Lucy would have wanted and it’s certainly not what the community wanted,” said Shannon. “It was a long 18-month negotiation with lots of hurdles, but the negotiations are done and we’ve finally closed. It will be our honor to be the stewards of The Greystone and welcome people back to enjoy this truly special property. It is our wish that The Greystone continue to welcome guests for generations to come.”
“The Greystone is a big part of the heart of the community,” expanded Geoff, “and this gives us a chance to do what we do: make people feel at home, like a warm blanket. It’s fun to create, and this provides natural growth for our entire team.
We genuinely enjoy what we do here, and it’s an honor to be involved with The Greystone. We feel really lucky!”
The Call to Adventure
The Ellises will not be moving to North Carolina, but will make the three-hour drive back and forth as needed. “We’ll be hiring later and hope to nd a great team there like we have here,” they chorused. When asked if some of the Willcox team would be moving there, they replied that was a possibility, but not until later.
The call of adventure is not new to the Ellises. Shannon is from Toronto, Canada, and met New York-born Geoff in Charlotte. They married in 2002 at the Green Boundary Club in Aiken, where Geoff’s family history goes back to Winter Colony names such as Grace and Ellis. They lived in California, where daughter Grace, now 13, was born, and then moved to New Zealand where they owned and operated six restaurants, including gastro pubs, wood- red pizza and a neighborhood restaurant.
Shannon and Geoff returned to Aiken for better schools for Grace, and along with them came two New Zealanders who were key players in opening The Willcox Restaurant in 2009: Regan Browell, The Willcox Executive Chef, and Matt Sayer, The Willcox Restaurant Manager. Three months after opening The Restaurant at The Willcox, the Ellises purchased The Willcox hotel, with 10 minutes to spare before midnight struck on New Year’s Eve, the time when the opportunity to buy it was set to expire.
Shannon and Geoff Ellis are now welcome fixtures in Aiken, and the famous hospitality of The Willcox has garnered numerous awards, not only in the South, but nationally and worldwide, from Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Travel readers.
There is little doubt that the Lake Toxaway community will also soon appreciate, respect, and enjoy the “Ellis Style” of running an inn, and delight in the gifts of the talented, dynamic couple who heeded the call of adventure from North Carolina.
Visit www.greystoneinn.com for more information
By Kathy Huff Cunningham