Gainesville’s historic bed-and-breakfast district

Vanessa Blankenship, Avenue Staff Writer | Apr 3, 2019


Cindy, 64, and Joe Montalto, 65, fell in love with the bed-and-breakfast lifestyle after their first stay in the 80s.

First, the couple looked at a house in Orlando but when they lost the place to someone who paid in cash, the couple started searching for Victorian houses in Gainesville’s historic district.  

Gainesville held fond memories for the two. They were married here and Joe studied engineering at UF. On Easter Sunday 1990, the couple toured the Baird Mansion in downtown Gainesville with Joe Montalto’s parents. The wife hoped her in-laws would convince them to not buy the rundown mansion, but they did not.

Together, the couple completely restored the 1885 Victorian mansion and opened Magnolia Plantation for guests May 3, 1991.

The neighborhood at the time was not welcoming due to illegal activities like prostitution.

“We had no idea what this area was like, there were hookers walking up and down the street,” Cindy Montalto said. “We were so engrossed in restoring the house, people probably thought we were idiots because nobody came down here.”

Montalto added that now the area is one of the safest neighborhoods in Gainesville. Eventually, the Montaltos were able to buy the properties surrounding the mansion and preserve seven cottages.

Their guests, friends and family also fell in love with the lifestyle and started restoring Victorian houses around the Magnolia Plantation. This became known as the bed-and-breakfast district.  

The husband’s cousin, Patricia McCants, and her husband, Tom McCants, eventually opened the Camellia Rose Inn after visiting for their wedding anniversary.

Two Magnolia Plantation guests, Monta and Peggy Burt, bought and restored the Laurel Oak Inn next door after staying with the couple. The inn is currently owned by Nan Charland and her husband, Dave Charland.

“We have something that we call ‘The Sucker Club,’” Cindy Montalto said. “Between guests and friends and family, we have moved 18 people into this neighborhood.”  

Magnolia Plantation Bed & Breakfast Inn and Cottages is now a pet-friendly vacation destination complete with a full breakfast, gardens overlooking an inviting gazebo, pathways, bridge, ponds and a fountain. With the mansion and seven cottages, the B&B can host 42 guests maximum.

The Montalto’s have a personal relationship with their staff and care deeply about their guests having a welcoming experience at the B&B.

“We are here for the people, these people are our job,” Cindy Montalto said. “Yeah we had to restore this house but it’s more about making sure people get a favorable impression of this super cool town.”

Unlike an Airbnb, a B&B is required to follow regulations, comply with inspections, have multiple licenses and pay a sales tax and bed tax. The owners are also required to live on-site.

In Gainesville, the quaint vacation getaways have to compete with hotels and Airbnbs for guests during commencement ceremonies, football season, weddings and parents’ weekend.   

Owners like Cindy Montalto are frustrated with Airbnbs because of the lack of guidelines.

“That’s the problem,” Montalto said. “We are forced to a different standard than they are but nobody seems to be able to do anything about them.”

Cornelia Holbrook, 55, owner of the Sweetwater Branch Inn, thinks that inns in this area will be a thing of the past because of the level of commitment and money that goes into running an inn or B&B.

Holbrook said her inn gets inspected four times a year to make sure the sprinkler systems, fire alarms and licenses are all up-to-date.

“It takes a very special person to want to commit themselves to this, I mean, I’m married to this as much as I’m married to my family,” Holbrook said. “Those two things go together, I’m married to my business and I’m married to my family and my husband.”

Since she was 4 years old, Holbrook has lived in Gainesville and her mother was the one who inspired her to open an inn. Her combined love of gardening and cooking also motivated her to join the hospitality industry.

The Sweetwater Branch Inn grounds has two Victorian-style mansions, the McKenzie House and the Cushman-Colson House; five guest cottages; one honeymoon cottage; a reception hall that fits 180 people; gardens and a heated pool.

Holbrook completely restored the 1885 Victorian Cushman-Colson house while her parents restored the 1895 Victorian-style McKenzie House. However, Cornelia made the McKenzie House code-complaint to make it a public-use space.

By 1993, Holbrook opened the Sweetwater Branch Inn two years after the Magnolia Plantation. Each room has a different style that ranges from Asian-Victorian to garden-themed. She is currently restoring two more cottages; when she finishes, her inn will have 25 guest rooms in total.

Besides serving breakfast, the inn offers guests free bikes to explore nature trails and downtown Gainesville. Plus, a high tea is hosted on the third Tuesday of every month.

Holbrook said business is not as busy as she would like it to be and had brief conversations with UF President Kent Fuchs about promoting the B&B district as hospitality entities for out-of-town participants who come to UF during seminars, conferences and symposiums.

“Put us on the radar,” Holbrook said. “That’s all I want to be done, that’s all I want is that the University of Florida helps put these historic inns on the radar because they are special.”