On April 7, 1971, Joe Montalto’s life changed forever. He met his future wife and business partner, Cindy. Twenty years later, the pair opened The Magnolia Plantation, Gainesville’s first bed-and-breakfast.
Only a 10-minute drive from UF lies one of Gainesville’s hidden gems: the historic bed-and-breakfast district. With a rich history and eclectic aesthetics, these inns have provided a unique travel experience to Gainesville visitors for 32 years.
Ghosts, hippies, Tom Petty and some members of his first band, Mudcrutch, have inhabited these inns long before they became temporary homes to travelers passing through.
Each bed and breakfast has a different resurrection story. Joe, 69, and Cindy, 68, had different ideas when they were looking for property to buy in Gainesville. Joe is a “visionary” and Cindy is a realist, she said.
“When we pulled up to the front of the house, when we first were looking at it, Joe said at the exact same time I did–He's like, ‘This is the house,’ and I said, ‘Oh hell no I'm not going in there,’” Cindy said.
The house is a standing time capsule, decorated with black and white family photos, baptismal outfits and 11-year-old Joe’s red Soap Box Derby car. Their collie, Annie, sits in the summer kitchen where Cindy makes breakfast every morning for guests while their adopted stray cat, Turtle, wanders the property throughout the day.
Every detail was thought out, Joe said. Each room is named after one of their female relatives. The main house’s kitchen is made completely out of Gainesville Cypress trees.
Cindy and Joe were the catalysts that prompted the bed and breakfast district’s redevelopment. The area was run down when they moved in. Originally, the couple purchased just the main house, which was littered with couches, mattresses and a pile of “crusty” clothes taller than Cindy, she said.
The couple credits themselves with starting the “sucker club,” a club made up of family, friends and guests they’ve convinced to move to the district and surrounding areas. Their latest convert is a doctor and nurse couple who moved in six years ago, Joe said.
“Our biggest coup is sucker number 18, which is right on the other side of that fence there, we now have a doctor and a nurse,” Joe said. “Right through that gate, we get free medical attention anytime we want.”
Joe and Cindy worked around the clock to restore the French Second Empire Victorian house, the only of its kind in Gainesville, Joe said. The couple outsourced work for the electrical, plumbing and air conditioning, but did everything else alongside a carpenter who worked with them six days a week.
Joe and Cindy opened their inn in 1991, and while they had success, it was difficult to get students in the surrounding areas to quiet down, Joe said. To combat this, the couple bought some of the surrounding builds in the first 10 years of being open.
In addition to buying extra property, Joe and his father installed a pond on the property that is supposed to resemble the Florida Springs, he said. The noise generated by the pond blocked out a little bit of college student rumble.
As the neighborhood developed and the couple grew the “sucker club,” the college voices started to fade out, Joe said.
Two years after Cindy and Joe opened The Magnolia Plantation, Cornelia Holbrook, 60, opened The Sweetwater Branch Inn. Two minutes from The Magnolia Plantation, it has 29 rooms spread through 13 buildings on a 2-acre property.
“We took old, dilapidated, unrestored, otherwise unsightly buildings—historic treasures, actually—and made them into something useful,” Holbrook said.
The inn serves a wide variety of purposes. Its eccentric rooms differ wildly from hotels because every room is uniquely decorated and no detail is a coincidence, she said.
“The rooms in one of the houses are named after roses, and then the rooms in McKenzie house are named after famous women that I love,” she said. “I didn't want to put numbers on them.”
In 1978, Holbrook’s mother, Giovanna Holbrook, purchased the McKenzie Home—one of the two Victorian-era mansions on the current property—with her husband, Juan. Named after the previous owner, Mary McKenzie, the couple restored the home, but they had trouble renting it out.
Because of this, Giovanna moved into the McKenzie Home in 1982. However, Cornelia Holbrook had always dreamed of opening an inn, she said. When the opportunity arose, Giovanna bought the Cushman-Colson House, which was right next door to the McKenzie home.
“I had seen my parents restore a couple of Victorian homes and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be wonderful,’” Holbrook said. “It was a good fit.”
In 1992, Holbrook began restoring the Cushman-Colson House to its Victorian glory, which was no easy feat, she said. The house was purchased after a fire from its previous inhabitants.
The Cushman-Colson house was a commercial property and therefore required a contractor to tackle the restoration, but Holbrook was there every step of the way.
“I did a lot of refurbishing of the woodwork and the fire mantles and antique doors, and I did all the interior design,” she said. “I started out with just five guest rooms, so it was tiny.”
In 1993, she opened the Sweetwater Branch Inn, and in 1998, Giovanna moved out of the McKenzie Home, and Holbrook added five more rooms to the inn.
Holbrook, while not a professionally trained chef, has cooked in various kitchens her whole life, and made breakfast for guests at the inn for 28 years, she said. Recently, she took a step back from morning preparations to focus on her 14-year-old son.
Now 31 years in, Holbrook reflects on her struggles through the decades. Battles with ghosts, Airbnb and COVID-19 have forced inn owners to fight to keep their historic preservations alive, she said.
Multiple guests have checked out because of a mischievous spirit that would move picture frames or mess with light fixtures, she said. Holbrook wants the record to show that the Sweetwater Branch Inn is no longer haunted after a spiritualist helped the “lost soul” find its way home, she said.
Previous inhabitants at the Laurel Oak Inn, owned by Susannah Peddie, were much more human. Tom Petty and another member of Mudcrutch lived at the Laurel Oak Inn when it was still a four-unit apartment building, and the area was known as “Hippie Hill” around 1969.
The Laurel Oak Inn was renovated for stability by Butch and Joyce Redstone and was bought by another couple in 1999, who restored the house to its Victorian-era designs. It became operational in 2001 and has had different owners over the years, but Peddie, 46, took over the inn earlier this year. She also took over the Camellia Rose Inn in 2023, she said.
Peddie manages multiple properties in Gainesville, either as a bed and breakfast or an Airbnb, with her business partners who live in South Florida, she said.
Peddie is trying to modernize the bed and breakfast concept. Her inns provide a continental breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. where travelers can come and go at their leisure. She aims to cater to the modern traveler, but admires the unique experience bed-and-breakfasts can offer, she said.
“It's wonderful because it preserves some history of Gainesville, and these are not cookie-cutter motels, hotels. I mean, each room is different,” she said. “You're not going to get character from any other hotel or motel or any other accommodation in Gainesville,” Peddie said.
The bed and breakfast concept is a tough business to run, and most only last a few years, Cindy and Joe Montalto said. The couple owns Gainesville’s longest-running bed and breakfast. But they do it together.
“I couldn't imagine doing this without him,” Cindy said. “I wouldn't want to do it by myself, it’s not fun.”
“I don't want to be with anybody except for her,” Joe responded.
Their legacy is not the inn they’re eventually going to leave behind, they said, but it’s the impact they’ve left on the neighborhood and its people.
Contact Ella @email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elladeethompson.
Ella Thompson is a third-year journalism major who's on general assignment for The Alligator's metro desk. In her free time, she likes to read, cook and think of feature stories for The Alligator.