Natchez — When Lani Riches discovered Natchez with her husband, Ronnie, some 30 years ago, not many folks in the riverside city took her interest in buying the dilapidated Monmouth Plantation very seriously. The young free-spirited California couple wearing jeans and moccasins looked more like hippies than sophisticated investors.
“We went into Buzz Harper’s antique store, and the young man that worked with him looked at Buzz and said ‘nish-nish,’ which was code for ‘Don’t waste time with these people, they don’t have a dime to their name,’” recalled Lani Riches, with a laugh. “In fairness, he wasn’t far off, but Buzz took a liking to us, why I’ll never know. I wasn’t this elegantly dressed Texas lady dripping with beautiful jewelry coming into his shop.”
When the Riches asked Harper if he had heard about the circa 1818 Greek Revival-style home being for sale, he laughed. “Heard of it? Everybody in town has tried to buy it, but three different families own it and it’s been impossible for everyone to agree on terms,” he told her.
“We really didn’t have the money,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. But Buzz went with us to meet the wonderful lady who was representing Monmouth. It took about a year to close the deal because it was so complicated with the three families involved. We probably spent $5,000 on phone calls. That’s when long-distance calls were still so expensive.”
On Valentine’s Day 1977, the Riches finally owned Monmouth. But the long restoration process had not yet begun.
“At the time, we were the youngest couple in America to ever have embarked on such a restoration, especially for a property that wasn’t inherited,” she said. “In those years, people were coming into Monmouth asking for our parents. Our parents wanted to send us for therapy!”
The Riches had limited construction knowledge, but no experience with historic renovations. A Los Angeles native, Riches had begun working at the family-owned Sinclair Paints and Wall Coverings when she was 11, cutting wallpaper samples for clients and later working the showroom. She met Ronnie at the University of Hawaii, and they married when she was only 19.
“When we first got married, he was a real estate developer,” she recalled. “For a little while, he worked in our family business. And then he and his brother went back in the development world, mostly developing small shopping centers in southern California.”
Restoring Monmouth Plantation in the memory of original owners John and Eliza Quitman was a labor of love, with Harper assisting them with interior re-design. Ron and Mimi Miller of the Historic Natchez Foundation, Danny Smith, a top-rated contractor, and Duncan Morgan, a talented brick mason, were sticklers for detail, and Bill Garbo assisted with landscaping the 26 acres of grounds dotted with majestic moss-draped oaks and fishing ponds.
Two years later, the Riches opened the main floor to the public. Since then, Monmouth has become famous worldwide as a venue for luxurious weddings, and a Mecca for corporate retreats, executive meetings and romantic getaways.
“My dear friend, Molly, who is an innkeeper in Bath, England, instilled this in me immediately. She said, ‘Honey, make every visitor feel special, especially the ones who saved for two years to come stay.’ And that’s what we try to do,” she said.
The AAA-four diamond rated hotel has won awards from the world’s most prestigious travel publications. Last year, Conde Nast ranked Monmouth 23rd of the “100 Best of the Best in the World.” Travel + Leisure named it one of the top three hotels in the U.S. and Canada for $250 or less. Despite consistent industry accolades, Lani Riches remains modest about her contribution.
“We’re just a teeny dot on the speck of properties all over the world,” she said. “What makes Monmouth so special is its staff. John Luke, our general manager several years ago, worked all over the world and said that Monmouth has something he’s never seen anywhere else: soul. My philosophy is I want everybody working at Monmouth to have a happy, beautiful and blessed day. I don’t want it just to be a place of work.”
When Lani Riches learned about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, she was at a University of Hawaii football game.
“I started crying because my heart went out to everyone,” she said. “After the storm, we opened Monmouth to people escaping the devastation. Natchez took in 30,000 people, not just in shelters and hotels, but some people had 17 people living in their home. One man had broken his glasses and a local eye doctor didn’t charge him for the exam or replacing his glasses. So it wasn’t just at Monmouth. The whole spirit of Natchez shone through.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.