For Sarah and Jeff Shepherd, the decision to resurrect a historic manor in their home neighborhood of Boylan Heights in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, was at once contemplative and spontaneous. “Opening this hotel was a fantasy idea until it wasn’t,” Sarah says. “I knew we had to make Heights House happen for Raleigh, because our city doesn’t have anything like it.” And so the couple made it happen—they opened the manor home as Heights House in the spring of 2021.
Built in 1858 and helmed by only ten owners from then until now, the nine-room, 10,000-square-foot boutique hotel formerly known as Montfort Hall (after one of its original owners), is a national historic landmark and a masterstroke of Italianate design. The towering fifteen-foot ceilings, restored original hardwoods, and stained glass cupola serve as a tangible gossamer thread that connects the storied history of the building to its present day use.
In 2018, the Shepherds saw past the building’s age and its unintended neglect—water damage, peeling plaster, and a litany of issues, structural and otherwise—to unearth a precious gem. The three-year renovation process, helmed by Laurie Jackson of Maurer Architecture, balanced the old-world grandiosity of the manor with modern touches, such as app-controlled lighting that adjusts to the time of the day. Besides a handful of antique pieces—like the Shepherds’ family piano that Sarah grew up playing, which is now a focal point in the lower level of the hotel—all of the large furniture pieces in the guest suites and common rooms came from the North Carolina makers at Maiden Home. The handsomely detailed reception desk, parlor bar, and dining room buffet are the custom-built handiwork of the Raleigh design firm Tactile.
By lionizing the life of the home, in wildly practical and perceptible ways—the original roofing was repurposed into hardwood flooring in the new stair tower; and the outdoor firepit was forged from a forgotten palette of old red brick—hospitality and history emerge as Heights House’s finest features. Here, Sarah shares a little more:
What’s it like owning a boutique luxury hotel?
Well, I’m not a big fan of the word “luxury.” What I want, every day, is for each and every one of our guests to have a truly pleasurable and memorable experience. I want for them to really experience our gestures of generosity toward them.
What was the most surprising lesson you learned during the process of opening the hotel?
I learned to trust my gut. Even though I was not an expert when it came to the building and codes and all the ins and outs of this massive historic renovation project, my gut was always right.
What are some of the values you champion every day to your guests and to your staff?
The first thing is authenticity, followed by inclusivity, and sustainability. I hand-picked each and every detail and products that we use at Heights House from the bath products to the larger furniture pieces. I did this because I wanted to ensure that every product felt right and conveyed the sense of quality and welcome our guests deserve. Also being a truly inclusive environment is a massive value of ours. We are a small team and we strive to give equal access and opportunities to our guests and staff, as well. When we hire a new staff member, our training period reviews at length our values and how we demonstrate them day to day. Also, it’s vital to our business that we involve every team member’s ideas, knowledge, and perspectives, because it makes us better.
What does success look like to you?
I love that our business is capped at nine rooms because it allows us to be hyper-focused and intentional. As someone who loves to travel, I’ve always gravitated toward places like Heights House, where the owners are very invested, and you can feel that investment because of all of the details. And when guests acknowledge and appreciate those details, well, that’s the best feeling.