This article was originally published in the July 2018 Princeton Echo.
What could be next for a Princeton building whose history spreads out as colorfully as, well, a peacock’s tail?
Today’s Peacock Inn arrived at 20 Bayard Lane after migrating from its origins on Nassau Street. Across more than two centuries it has hosted notable guests ranging from members of the Continental Congress to Albert Einstein; presented both home-style meals and elegant cuisine; and offered conviviality in the form of a beloved basement bar, the Peacock Alley (which, according to legend, started as a hidden Prohibition-era speakeasy).
Since the peacock, like its mythical cousin the phoenix, is considered a symbol of renewal, is it so strange that the Peacock Inn has not only been reborn as a boutique hotel/restaurant, but is also part of a real estate investment portfolio that helps fund — of all things — medical technology research?
“It’s a boutique hotel/restaurant, the only one in this region,” said Michael Gale, vice president of business development for Genesis Investment Properties, which acquired the small but venerable 16-room hotel and restaurant from Barry and Elaine Sussman.
The inn’s restaurant, which served dinners but had been closed since January 1, has been reinvented as a full-service operation featuring a culinary fusion promoted as “American Mosaic Cuisine.”
“We want it to be top tier, a place that people talk about,” says Gale. “We don’t want to take away from what the Sussmans did. We’re building on their fantastic platform.”
Supporting the Peacock Inn’s recent and new platforms are columns of colorful local history.
Records in the Historical Society of Princeton files and other sources indicate that the structure was originally built in the latter part of 1700s as the home of Jonathan Deare. Spacious for its time at two stories plus an attic, it was one of the town’s colonial-era demi-mansions. It stood on Nassau Street near today’s intersection of University Place. In 1783 — when the Continental Congress essentially fled Philadelphia under the threat of unpaid, mutinous Revolutionary War soldiers and came to Princeton to continue planning for the new United States — Deare offered room and board to members: two rooms with beddings, breakfast and tea for two, and dinner for four. With accommodations scarce under sudden demand, it is certain that some delegates slept and ate there between their deliberations in nearby Nassau Hall.
When the University Hotel was constructed at that location in 1875, the building was moved essentially around the corner to its present location at 20 Bayard Lane, becoming the home of William Libbey III, an archeologist and Princeton professor of geography. (Some sources claim that Libbey, as an undergraduate, was instrumental in having the orange and black officially adopted as Princeton’s colors.)
In 1911 Joseph and Helen O’Connor purchased the property and established the Peacock Inn, naming it after an inn they loved in the Midlands of England. In 1915 it suffered a terrible fire but survived sufficiently to be reconstructed by prominent architect and restoration specialist Rolf Bauhan, yet another of its many reinventions and renewals.
Sometime in the mid-1930s, Martha’s Kitchen moved its food serving operations to the building from nearby One Nassau Street (the brick building that housed drug stores for many years and later the offices of the Town Topics newspaper). This eatery proudly advertised “Breakfasts, Luncheons, Teas and Dinners — Waffles a Specialty.” Also advertising locally in the 1930s was the “Peacock Alley.” According to local tradition, this beloved basement bar, despite its colorful name, had started discreetly in the 1920s as a speakeasy during the national prohibition on alcohol.
During this period, the Peacock Inn hosted perhaps its most famous guest — Albert Einstein. In 1933 the great physicist arrived in Princeton to join the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study. Einstein stayed at the inn for 10 days before taking an apartment in the brick building on the northwest corner of Stockton Street and Library Place (eventually acquiring the Mercer Street home where he lived until his death in 1955).
Over the subsequent years, the Peacock Inn’s fortunes, like its namesake’s tail, either displayed splendidly or folded to be carried ploddingly. The French-style interior decor and menu, once stylish, had become dull liabilities. A major rebirth came in 2006 when Lawrence-based real estate professionals Barry and Elaine Sussman acquired the Inn. They immediately made a bold investment of time and money, closing it for a three-year-plus renovation, reducing the structure to its beams and most basic walls, then rebuilding it from the inside out. It reopened to acclaim in May, 2010, its rooms now inviting and its restaurant featuring New American cuisine.
“They turned the place into something very special,” says Michael Gale.
But after seven years the Sussmans were ready to make a sale to the right buyer. And the buyer prepared to give the Peacock Inn a new beginning was Genesis Investment Properties. There had been no advertisement for its sale. “We had heard through friends that it was available,” Gale says.
Founded by physician Eli Mordechai and now headquartered in Hamilton, the firm (which uses the initials GIP to differentiate itself from other entities named Genesis) is a real estate investment, development, and management company. And it’s a real estate company with an intriguing financial agenda.
Mordechai is also the founder and CEO of Medical Diagnostic Laboratories — also headquartered in Hamilton — which develops medical diagnostic equipment and systems. Of course, successful new medical products are quite remunerative, but the process is hugely expensive and typically involves multiple investors. Mordechai’s strategy? He largely supports his R&D through real estate.
GIP’s $325,000,000 portfolio of some 2,745,00 square feet of properties is a mix of predominantly commercial (retail, office, and research) properties with some residential and mixed use, plus a hospitality segment. GIP’s holdings are in 29 states, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and South, but it has a growing presence in the West. Among its one dozen New Jersey properties are several in Princeton, including 80-84 Nassau Street (retail tenants the Paper Source, Princeton Pi, and Kung Fu Noodle, with offices and apartments above) and 38-42 Witherspoon Street (Green Design and Continental Barbershop, also with private rental space above).
The hospitality segment represents only about seven percent of GIP’s holdings but is a source of particular pride to Mordechai, as it includes the Washington Crossing Inn (at a modest 10,852 square feet) and now the Peacock Inn (an even more intimate 8,511 square feet).
With Bryn Mawr Trust as the lender on the sale, GIP closed on the Peacock property on May 9 and did a “soft reopening” for dinner on May 25. In between the two dates, and behind the scenes, was genteel madness.
Sherute LLC, a landscaping operation that is part of the GIP family of companies, immediately set to work renewing the inn’s shrubs and flowerbeds. But most significantly, the kitchen was replaced. Quickly, but entirely.
“We had to get it reopened in only a couple of weeks,” says Gale. “But we replaced the entire kitchen to make it ready for the level of service we want to present. The physical kitchen in the past was built to serve dinner, period. We needed it to serve all meals.”
This now includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunches as well. High teas — very popular at the Washington Cross Inn, the GIP sister facility — are planned to start this fall.
That also meant a different executive chef — Mark Valenza came over from Washington Crossing Inn — and an entirely different menu concept, a fusion approach that Gale and Valenza promote with pride and confidence as “American mosaic cuisine.”
The Sussmans, says Gale, “were gracious through the whole process.” Scott Sussman, Barry and Elaine’s son, stayed on to manage and advise on operations through the hectic Princeton University reunions and commencement period at the beginning of June. “He showed us what we needed to know, which we greatly appreciate.”
That’s just the start: “We will be renewing the guest rooms and bringing them up to our vision. I anticipate we’ll have a majority of that done this year.” Does this mean also that the expansive, custom-painted murals of Princeton town and campus in the basement’s former Peacock Alley barroom, are to become history, and not in a happy sense?
Gale smiles “We don’t have any intention of removing the murals. They’re special to that room.”
And are customers for such a boutique hotel/restaurant a highly limited clientele? “They’re an exclusive clientele,” Gale acknowledged. “They’re looking for an experience that’s more than just a room for the night, for a level of quality across all categories from the moment they pull in until the moment they check out.” The Peacock Inn is now part of the Choice Hotels Properties network, under its Ascend Collection. Room rates are around $300 per night.
But while Gale points with pride to such top-tier positioning, he is quick to emphasize that the new Peacock Inn will not be an elitist dominion. “We want to be open to the local community and businesses. It’s where businesses can have conferences. It’s a great place to have a party.”
Among the Peacock Inn’s managers are some new hires and some continuity with the Sussman era and other Genesis Investment Properties locations. Andrew Hudak is the new general manager and Alex Bielanski the new hospitality director. Olivia Allen, who had been employed by the Sussmans over two prior years, has returned as assistant general manager.
Michael Gale’s path to the Peacock via Genesis Investment Properties started at Congoleum Corporation, the flooring giant, at its Hamilton headquarters, where he served as an operations manager from 1990 until 2003, when he was caught in a downsizing.
Early in 2004 Gale read that Medical Diagnostics Laboratories was coming to Hamilton. He wrote to Mordechai. “I told him, you’ll need a operations manager. Take me on a trial basis and then after three months, if I work out, you can hire me at an appropriate salary.” That full hiring came after only one month.
Executive Chef Mark Valenza (who retains that title at Washington Crossing Inn), spoke of the challenges of renewing the Peacock Inn with a calm acceptance clearly born of long experience in hospitality. “I’ve opened other restaurants before,” he said. “It’s always difficult because each time you’re starting from scratch.”
Still, the rebirth of the Peacock may have had special difficulties, especially with its first supper being offered soon after the sale closing and the total renovation of the kitchens. Valenza had to hire 22 people in one month — separate breakfast, lunch, and dinner staff.
Fortunately, he said, “I’ve worked in Princeton before. I know a good amount of line cooks. There’s quite a few in the town.”
The line cooks are part of an overall staff of some 50 employees. Parking, Gale acknowledged, is an issue. Although a valet awaits guests in the inn’s driveway, sheltered by an expansive and appropriately colorful umbrella against sun and rain, carefully delivering guests’ vehicles to the spots behind the building, the staff have to find spaces off site. Parking, says Gale, “is probably the single most pressing common problem for business across Princeton. That has been a challenge. I’ve been to the council meetings about parking studies.”
One solution: Gale has worked out agreements with the nearby YM/YWCA, avoiding parking spillover on Boudinot Street and other lanes that would cause resentment in Princeton’s western section. “We are where we are. Our challenge is to balance the need to serve our clientele with recognizing the needs of our neighbors. We just can’t roll over them and do what is convenient. We have to work with them.”
Mark Valenza’s path to the Peacock, like Gale’s, is something of a colorful life display itself. He grew up in Green Brook, in nearby Somerset County. But he moved to Manhattan as a teenager, finding work in the mailroom of Jim Henson Productions. He eventually handled production logistics for “The Muppet Show,” moving props and costumes between the warehouse and the studio.
But the kitchen called. Or, perhaps, beckoned again. “My family has always been in the restaurant business,” he said. He graduated from the French Culinary Institute in 1999 and, returning to central New Jersey, quickly rose through the ranks. He was executive chef at Triumph Brew Pub in Princeton from 2001 to 2006. He opened Za in Pennington and ran it until 2012, perfecting his own “cross cultural concept cuisine.”
As he explains: “I like to do a lot of cross cultural. Not combing cultures but next to each other.” For example, he might present an Italian-style risotto and a Chinese specialty next to each other. The “American mosaic cooking” now featured at the Inn, he says, will be “celebrating the variety we all grew up with here. I think [patrons] are looking for something more out of the ordinary, with more choices.”
But as central as this is to the Peacock Inn’s rebirth as an upper-tier boutique hotel, perhaps there is something here for Princeton residents or visitors of more modest means; something that renews the inn’s historic commonality with the fare offered by John Deare to his boarders or by Martha’s Kitchen.
Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane. Open seven days a week. 609-924-1707.