Cover Story » Vol. 24

Making an Impact on the Community

An interview with Dr. Charles and Janet Birbara.

By Bernard Whitmore

Most of us regard investments in business as something “They’re” up to:  “They’re putting up a new building downtown” or “They’re opening a new restaurant.”  We don’t usually know much about these enterprising individuals.  I recently had the opportunity to talk with the couple who own the Beechwood Hotel and Ceres Bistro; it was a fascinating look into the nature of people who care about their community and are willing to take risks.charlie_janet-002

Charles Birbara, MD, is a Worcester rheumatologist.  His wife, Janet, is a board member of Preservation Worcester; the two share both pride and passion for the Beechwood.  But before launching into a conversation about the hospitality business, I asked them to share some personal background.

Charles: My family goes back over a hundred years living continuously in Worcester.  After graduating from high school I went to Harvard College and then went to medical school at McGill University in Montreal.

Janet: And I’m originally from Canada, trained as a nurse.   We met there and, after McGill, moved to the United States where we spent quite a few years in other parts of the country.

Charles continued: After McGill I went to Northwestern University in Chicago where I did a residency in internal medicine as the first Chief Medical Resident.  Then I enlisted in the army for two years during the Vietnam War and came back to NWU to do a fellowship in rheumatology.

I’m a rheumatologist.  When I came to Worcester City Hospital in 1970 the first year class had just entered ~ there was no university hospital yet.  Sixteen students rotated through the city hospitals. I came in as Assistant Chief of Medicine and was involved in teaching the medical students for the first 10 or 15 years as the medical school built up its own hospital.

Early on a lot of what I did was involved with the training program at Worcester City Hospital.  But eventually you grow out of that because younger medical students tend to relate better to their peers than [to] someone much older than themselves. You become emeritus of sorts.   But I have a very active practice limited to rheumatology ~ essentially joint problems.  And I have a very active clinical research group; we are involved in clinical trials by major drug companies in arthritis and osteoporosis.  System inflammatory diseases and bone diseases: the management of bone loss, if you will.

But my own personal interest continues to be medicine and research projects.  I really enjoy my practice and happen to have a wonderful group of people in my practice who are bright, intelligent and committed to good patient care; it’s very enjoyable.

So how did the Beechwood Inn come into your lives?

charles-birbaraCharles: The hotel was largely accidental.  When I was initially involved in the project I was purely a passive limited partner.  Then the general partner went into bankruptcy.  At that point, the financial burden fell on me and ~ rather than fold ~ I got other people involved.  We worked out an arrangement with the lenders and were able to keep the Beechwood in survival mode.  Since then we’ve revamped the whole building and project to the standards of excellence we wanted in the first place.  We’ve gutted every single guestroom to the bare walls.  Plus the lobby, the kitchens…everything!

Janet: The thing about the hotel is that it’s never static ~ you can never say it’s “done.”  Things change.  In the first years there was only one computer in the entire hotel.  Now there isn’t a single desk without a computer!  But much bigger things have happened; for example, Charlie was the real push behind the chapel.

Each time I’ve attended an event in the Beechwood’s Chapel Function Room I’ve been fascinated by its richly carved woodwork and elaborate stained glass windows.  How did those elements come to adorn the hotel?

Charles: The hotel doesn’t fly a corporate flag, so as an independent we have to try harder to attract customers.  We’ve incorporated some architectural gems that we picked up at auctions.  For example, the stained glass ceiling over the center staircase came out of a mansion in San Francisco that was built ten years prior to the earthquake of 1906!

Then, of course, we bought the chapel that was at City Hospital.  They were tearing the hospital down, so I bought the chapel and stored it in pieces for a decade. I knew then that we would use it at the hotel but how it would architecturally blend with a function space was something we had to work on.  The architects took careful measurements of the pieces and designed a building to accommodate it.

Janet: And the stained glass in the chapel comes from Indiana; they still have the chemical formulas for each color.

Charles: The stained glass dome in Ceres Bistro came out of an atrium in Boston built at the turn of the century.  The black walnut fireplace in the lobby came from an old New England home going back to 1840.  The bronze sconces at the entrance of Ceres were on a building in New York City ~ each is around 150 pounds.

Janet: We have eight of those huge bronze sconces; they’re very, very heavy.  When we told the architects we wanted to use all of them they groaned, “Do we have to do this?”  We ended up with two.  They look great and the architects were very pleased with them.janet-birbara-3

You mentioned your status as an “independent.”  Since most people will only stay at chain hotels, why did you make that choice and how do you attract patrons to the hotel?

Charles: That was a major difficulty in getting to where we are now. We don’t fly the flag of Marriott, Hilton or Hiatt.  We did not want to be a cookie-cutter hotel.  We wanted this to be a unique experience that we could create and not to be told what should be done.

Janet: When you bring in a major corporation they don’t look at things the same way as an independent hotel or restaurant.  There isn’t that twist of intrigue that an independent restaurant can have.  For example, I think Shrewsbury Street is unique because there are no large corporations on the street.
Charles:  But it did have its growing pains.  They were especially painful at the time and very trying financially.  It takes a long time for an independent hotel to establish enough clientele to stay reasonably busy.  But I think you would call this a Tiffany location: we’re near a major highway, close to the medical school, the world headquarters of Abbott Biotechnology abuts our property and we have the Biotech Park.  Because of our uniqueness we’ve had important and famous people and heads of corporations stay here, and scenes of a recent film were shot here.

It also helps that we are the only AAA Four Diamond awarded hotel between Boston and the Berkshires.  It’s prestigious and hard to get; we had to put in Ceres Restaurant and revamp the exterior before we could get this coveted award.  It posed its difficulty, but a travel agent will see that the Beechwood is the only Four Diamond hotel in the area, so they have to say, “Gee, there must be something about this place.”

Ceres Bistro is a departure from most area restaurants. What is the significance of its name, and what can customers expect from a dining experience there?

beechwood_080211_-1329Charles: The name came from Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest.  I felt that using this name would give the impression of farm-to-table.  We use organically prepared foods ~  food from local farms and sources.  We try to be fresh wherever possible.  We even get our eggs from Tufts Medical School ~ [they’re] Azuluna eggs, they have a blue shell and taste better than regular eggs.

A lot of people contributed to the restaurant’s design: the booths are higher to provide a sense of privacy and the doors open totally to the outside.  Not only do we have our function rooms downstairs, but meetings can also be held in rooms off the restaurant.  Plus we’re opening the restaurant to the outside with grilling out on the patio. I feel good about the business; we’re here a lot ~ a few hours a few days a week ~ [and] we’ve assembled a team of managers and people who really strive to deliver superior service.  They have the experience in hotel management and food service and that really carries the ball with respect to what the public sees.

Do you find that owning the hotel and restaurant has brought you closer to the Worcester community as a whole?

Janet: It’s interesting in that the hotel is a service industry and, as with nursing, you care for people.  So, it’s funny how easy it is to think of our guests as patients.  There is that relationship of caring and being a good host.

But I have other interests in the community; as a board member of Preservation Worcester I feel it’s important to keep in touch with our past, to have that tangible tie with the past.  I’m very concerned about the old Clock Tower [at Worcester State Hospital]; I don’t know whether it’s going to survive.

I’d like to see the entire Lake Quinsigamond shoreline opened to the public so that people could walk there and really enjoy it.  We have this wonderful body of water that White City Mall faces with their garbage cans.  Wouldn’t it be nice to walk along a clean shoreline?

There are a number of little buildings I’d love to see fixed up, [including] Mission Chapel down near Medical City.  The longer they sit empty, the harder it is to fix them.

I think Mass College of Pharmacy and WPI are taking leadership and investing in the city.   I’d love to see the energy on their campuses transmitted to the city.

So as a whole, Ceres and the Beechwood have been and continue to be a labor of love?

Charles: This has been a labor of love.  We’ve had a lot of down times, a lot of agonizing moments.  We still have our agonizing moments but we revel in any successes.  But we’re looking at this with a long-term point of view.  We think it enhances the adjacent property ~ functions at the med school, the coming research building, the business in the biotech park.

The community’s improving.  I’ve always been bullish in Worcester.  We’re very committed to this community and hope that what we’ve created here is something the community can appreciate and we’re pleased with the reception the community has given this project.

It’s been fun, [and] it’s had its trying moments.  But when we look back and see what we’ve been able to do and what we intend to do going forward, we get excited about it.

Janet summed up the Birbara’s dedication to continuing to better the city of Worcester with:  Is this our legacy?  No legacy yet… that’s still to come.

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