June 11, 2024

A Couple, A Grant, A Staircase, A Dream

The Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant helps bring a grand outdoor staircase back to the Pentagöet Inn & Pub

Matthew Powell and George Trinovitch’s story sounds like it jumps from the pages of a Hollywood movie script. The couple started dating in 2017, and within a year were looking at ways to combine their skills in a business venture as well as in their romantic relationship. Running an inn together was plotted out as part of a 10-year plan.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and the couple wanted to leave New York City. At the same time, many older innkeepers elsewhere were considering retiring or selling. Suddenly, the 10-year plan was a right-now plan. They reviewed more than 40 possible inns for purchase, hoping to find one in coastal Maine, where they had vacationed in the past.

In March 2022, they headed to Castine, Maine, “in a historic town on a historic street,” Powell said, and saw the Pentagöet Inn & Pub. It had interior design and historic renovation challenges for Trinovitch and hospitality and culinary needs for Powell.

“This was the first place we saw that gave us chills,” Trinovitch said.

Exterior of the Pentagöet Inn in Maine. The building is a small home with around tower area with a wrap around porch.

photo by: Pentagöet Inn & Pub

Exterior of the Pentagöet Inn & Pub before stairway restoration.

We Bought an Inn

It didn't take long for the couple to make up thier minds. They reviewed the numbers, and despite not having been to Castine before, they said “yes” to the purchase. From there, their “we-bought-an-inn” story had more charmed twists than a prototypical Hallmark movie.

Upon first seeing the front room of the Pentagöet Inn, the two turned to each other and said, “This room needs a piano.” Within one month, a local church donated a grand piano to them.

Pronounced “Pent-a-GO-it,” the word combines Wabanaki, English and French and loosely translates to “where the waters meet,” referring to the Bagaduce and Penobscot rivers.

In another made-for-TV-twist, Powell’s mother helped the two move to Maine, unpack and set up the inn, after having consulted with them on the financial aspects of their purchase and move. “Also, she is someone with fabulous taste and great opinions,” Trinovitch said.

Then, right out of Central Casting, the person who was the inn’s first official customer, a woman named Lela Agnew, nominated the inn—without Powell and Trinovitch’s advance knowledge—for the Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That grant is part of an annual program that started to aid struggling restaurants during the pandemic.

Powell and Trinovitch got to work completing the application Agnew started. She didn’t know it, but the two had spent time at the Castine Historical Society, looking at pictures of the inn dating back to 1894. There, they got the idea to rebuild the tongue-and-groove wooden corner staircase that the inn’s founder Lizzie Moon had designed and once had been a focal point for the inn and the town. Trinovitch said the staircase was a welcome to the town from the water (when people arrived via steamship rather than car) and that the corner of the inn was the focal point for both the street and the town.

Two people standing on the top step of a historic inn in Maine.

photo by: Pentagöet Inn & Pub

Temple Blackwood (left) and George Trinovitch (right) at the top of the stairs at the Pentagöet Inn & Pub. Blackwood and his son Starr Blackwood are woodturners that also completed the Inn's new sign.

View of  restoration work on a staircase at the front of a historic Inn.

photo by: Pentagöet Inn & Pub

Photo of Joey Deweese, electrician (left) and Ralph Hanscom, carpenter (right) working on the stairs in front of the Inn.

While they don’t know the whole story of why it was removed, they knew immediately that they wanted to bring it back “someday.” A 1926 postcard they found during their research features a photograph without the staircase. They had other things on their someday list: restoring historic paint colors and replacing missing gingerbread.

“Both of us have respect for the past and original intentions, which were welcoming and beautiful,” Powell said.

When they found out they had been awarded one of the grants for which Agnew nominated them, then “someday” could start sooner than they dreamt, just like their buying-an-inn dream was accelerated.

A Community Gathering Space

In its first three years, the Backing Historic Small Restaurants program awarded $40,000 each to 25 different restaurants, which is what the Pentagöet Inn received. Now, entering its fourth year, the funds have increased to $50,000 each for 50 different restaurants, still designed to aid historic restaurants in improving their businesses and supporting their communities.

Two individuals (Matthew Powell and George Trinovitch) with a dog holding some giant scissors as they cut a ribbon at the bottom of a set of staircases.

photo by: Pentagöet Inn & Pub

Matthew Powell and George Trinovitch and their mini schnauzer Mister, cutting the ribbon at the Pentagöet Inn & Pub.

Three individuals ( Matthew Powell, George Trinovitch, and Lela Agnew) on a staircase leading up to the Pentagöet Inn.

photo by: Pentagöet Inn & Pub

Matthew Powell and George Trinovitch with Lela Agnew, who nominated the Pentagöet Inn & Pub for the grant

In their application, Powell and Trinovitch outlined a plan to both rebuild the staircase and renovate the courtyard. As with many—if not most—preservation and construction projects, the cedar and pressure-treated white pine staircase was more involved and expensive than they initially estimated. As they started construction, they learned that the front porch wasn’t properly supported, so they were able to replace the porch (not with grant funds) before it collapsed in the future.

The costs of the staircase took the entirety of the grant, and then they used their own funds to overhaul the courtyard, which was a way to extend their outdoor seating area. “People get upset when they can’t sit outside in Maine in the summer,” Powell explained. Because summer is short at 44 degrees North latitude, folks want to soak up all the sun and vibrant colors that they can. Having a courtyard—that once was primarily a small garden—with patio dining space is an additional revenue stream for the inn, which has 16 rooms (the restaurant seats 90). Construction started in late fall 2023 (after the tourist season ended) and the staircase was unveiled in June 2024. The team added brick pavers in 2024 (work that couldn’t begin until after the ground thawed).

The Castine Brass Quintet

photo by: Pentagöet Inn & Pub

The Castine Brass Quintet performed on the porch of the ribbon cutting of the new stairs at the Pentagöet Inn & Pub.

Changing the patio reshaped Main Street, which is three blocks long, Trinovitch said. The patio becomes a community gathering space as well as an expansion of the restaurant.

As they said in their final report to the National Trust, “It’s not a direct one-to-one revenue outcome. Rather, this grant has brought a certain amount of notoriety to our restaurant and the community. Local news outlets from across the state came to cover the grant in print and televised news outlets, and they are all eager to see the final results. This, in turn, brought attention to Castine, a town that has always been dedicated to historic preservation. Highlighting our business has highlighted the town as a whole, and we believe it has also increased awareness of our little corner of Maine, bringing more people here to experience our restaurants, our cultural institutions, our shops, and more.”

The staircase is a particularly visible project, said Seri Worden, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Pentagöet’s combination of preservation and entrepreneurship will have an effect on the Castine community.

“As stated earlier, receiving the grant created major buzz around town and the surrounding area, with several print and televised news pieces being released across the state. In a town where new work, especially historic preservation work, can be contentious, several community members have noted the resounding support this new grand staircase and courtyard have received across the board” the couple said in their grant report. “One member of the community specifically stated that this is an example of ‘public work architecture,’ a structure created for the benefit of the town as a whole.”

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Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based journalist who tells the stories of people and places. Follow her work on socials @littmanwrites.

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