It’s a rainy November morning, and a pale winter light is slanting into the dining room of the Akwaaba Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn. The black walnut table is pristine; two gleaming white lilies arc from a glass vase at its center. At 8:15, Monique Greenwood, Akwaaba’s owner, sweeps in and starts to set up for breakfast. First come round place mats, followed by sparkling silverware and maroon damask napkins that she slips into gold metal rings, each bearing a small likeness of an African mask. Next, a tiny pitcher of cream for each place setting, a sugar bowl every two plates and little silver pitchers of maple syrup.
At 9, when guests begin to wander in, Greenwood, 54, produces platters laden with plump challah French toast, fresh fruit and turkey bacon—a feast she whipped up in 20 minutes. She gives one guest directions to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and offers another the names of Manhattan stores selling stylish maternity clothes. Greenwood owns two other Akwaaba inns (akwaaba.com)—one in Cape May, New Jersey, and another in Washington, D.C.—as well as a boutique resort in Bethany, Pennsylvania. But, she says, “I’m probably a closet social worker. I want the best for people, and I know that little things make a big difference.”
Indeed, it was her habit of noticing the little things that set Greenwood on her path to reinvention. In 1993, on the way home from her editor-in-chief job at a children’s trade magazine, she spotted a wedding party posing for photographs in her Brooklyn neighborhood—and behind them, two decidedly unpicturesque garbage cans. She moved the cans, and as she took in the scene, she was struck by the run-down mansion across the street. Suddenly, she imagined living there. Maybe the owners would sell it to her, she thought. She and her husband, Glenn Pogue, a television broadcast engineer, and their then baby girl, Glynn, could occupy the top floor, and she’d convert the rest of the house into a B&B. Greenwood quickly wrote a note asking the owner to contact her and slipped it under the door.
She got no response. A week later, Greenwood slipped another note under the door—and got no response to that either. Determined that the home would one day be hers, she returned every week to leave a message. Meanwhile, she and her husband delved into B&B research, staying at more than 30 around the country and taking notes on what they liked. Greenwood signed up for an innkeeping course and checked with the local buildings department; there were no regulations governing B&Bs.
Finally, after 18 months, she discovered that the mansion’s owner had died and that the heir who was executor of the estate hadn’t responded to her notes (or those left by dozens of other interested buyers) because he was overwhelmed by the prospect of selling his mother’s house. Greenwood persisted, and he eventually accepted her offer. “He believed I would bring the property back to a state that his mother would be proud of,” she says. She bought the 18-room, 5,000-square-foot house for $225,000, financing it with a 10 percent down payment and a $202,500 loan under the Community Reinvestment Act, a federal law that encourages banks to lend to businesses in low- and moderate-income areas. Greenwood, still working full time at her publishing job, moved her family into the house in December 1994 and named her venture Akwaaba, a Ghanaian word that means “welcome.”
Evenings and weekends, she and Pogue worked on renovations. They pulled up carpeting and linoleum to reveal original parquet floors. They restored fireplaces and marble mantelpieces. They redid the kitchen, the bathrooms and all the wiring. They bartered with tradesmen: Greenwood promised the plumber he could have his wedding reception at Akwaaba in exchange for installing pipes and faucets. The final price tag for all the work? Five hundred thousand dollars. “We’d always lived below our means,” says Greenwood, so going without vacations and expensive clothing didn’t faze her.