Innkeeper’s labor of love
Ray Lewand spent a good part of his life living and working in Southern California, starring as a lineman for the UCLA football team, working as a corporate manager, a stockbroker and later running his own insurance company. But after raising three girls, he and his wife Delmas found themselves on a long-planned European vacation feeling restless about their future.
“We wanted to do something else, and she was looking around for what that could be,” says Lewand. “We found ourselves in a bed and breakfast somewhere in France, and my wife turned to me and said, “We could do this.”
And so they did, buying the aging, in-need-of-repair Victorian on North Street in the summer of 1981 and transforming it into the lovingly restored Camellia Inn Bed & Breakfast. At the time they bought it, B&Bs were rare in Sonoma, but now, in large part due to the Lewands, there are now many to chose from.
The couple were around at the birth of what is now called the California Association of Bed & Breakfast Inns in the early ’80s and convinced the fledgling group to hold its first convention in Healdsburg. Over the years since they opened for their first guests on April Fools’ Day 1982, they became well known in a community that only in the past two decades has become a sought-after destination for wine country visitors.
“Half the square was boarded up when we first started,” Lewand says. “It took years for them to open a hotel, and all that time we were always here.”
Ray and Del ran the inn together, doing most of the work themselves until Del died in 2006. Since then, daughter Lucy Lewand has been running the inn with her husband Archie.
And while, at 84, Lewand no longer handles the day-to-day operations, he can often be found at the Inn doing small jobs or regaling visitors and guests about the long history of the house that was built in 1869 and has had only four owners.
Today, the pink-painted Victorian has been expanded and renovated to include nine guest rooms and a large community area downstairs that is filled with antique furniture and photographs of Lewand’s family and previous owners. The grounds include a garden and swimming pool, but it took many years to transform what he describes as a “wreck” when he and Del bought it.
It seems a long way from Ray’s childhood. He grew up with a passion for football and was an All-City selection at lineman at Dorsey High School, despite being only 5-foot-8, 181 pounds, small even then for football.
But he convinced the coaches at UCLA to give him a shot, and hard as they tried, they couldn’t find anyone as tenacious. Despite his size, he ended up playing a key role on the UCLA team in 1948 and, after missing a season due to injury, again in ’50 and ’51. He was so beloved by his coaches that when he announced he was quitting to marry Del, they called the couple into the head coach’s office and begged him to stay.
After school, he joined Northrup in Torrance, Calif., and while working there, was recruited by a local high school to coach its football team and teach driver’s ed. But before he could take that job, his boss at Northrup convinced him to apply for a promotion to the corporate office in Beverly Hills, and he ended up staying at Northrup through the early ’60s. While there he went back to UCLA for his master’s in business.
Later, he worked as a stockbroker and opened his own insurance company, but when the last of their three daughters left home, he and Del started talking about doing something else.
“All we knew was that we wanted to find something to do together,” Lewand says. “We talked a lot about different things and then on that trip to Europe, Del got the idea about opening a B&B. I’m not sure we knew exactly what we were getting into.”
As he does with everything, Lewand threw himself into research, and they started to look for places to open their inn. Trips to wine country had convinced them this was a good spot, and when they saw how few inns were located in Sonoma, they focused the search there. After they missed out on a couple of properties they liked, their Realtor reluctantly showed them the Victorian on North Street.
“It was in such bad condition, our Realtor wouldn’t even go inside,” Lewand remembers. “But we fell in love from the first time we saw it.”
They made a bid on the house but lost to another buyer and figured that would be the end of it. In the meantime, they sold their house in Los Angeles after months on the market in a difficult economy, and they took up temporary residence in a tiny guest house on his brother’s property in Los Angeles.
One day in late May that year, Lewand woke up and suggested they drive up to Healdsburg to go house hunting. As luck would have it, the Victorian they wanted fell out of escrow that same day. Two days later, they signed the papers.
“They gave us three hours to decide,” Lewand says. “We didn’t hesitate.”
Ray and Del bought the place sight-unseen, with no escrow, three hours after they agreed on a sale price. They never looked back.
“I didn’t think this would be the life I would lead, but it’s been a happy one,” Lewand says. “It was a lot of work, but we had a great deal of fun. I would do it again.”