The first time I ventured onto Taylor Street in West Brighton, I felt like I'd been transported to a different time and place.
The closer I got to Richmond Terrace from the rush of Castleton Avenue, the greater my amazement. Here, wonderful old homes sit well back from the street; there are tall, handsome trees; a welcome aura of peace and tranquility speaks to a simpler day and age. The block felt very different from anywhere else on the North Shore.
Since I first saw this graceful enclave, it has suffered from encroaching development that is, as one might expect, decidedly out of character with the traditional setting. Still, once you reach De Groot and Trinity places and beyond, you are surrounded by evidence of a more elegant time.
Nowhere is this more true than at 90-92 Taylor St., the double house owned by Danuta Gorlach -- and the home of Victorian Bed and Breakfast of Staten Island.
Guests who stay at Ms. Gorlach's B&B at 92 Taylor can't help but feel special and pampered --- she takes great pains to make them comfortable.
"Everything I do here, I feel like it's an expression of me," she said earnestly. "I don't like to cut corners."
With an old-world sensibility, she takes great pleasure in the smallest details. The table was set with hand-ironed linens and napkins, and the delicious smell of fresh-baked apple pie filled the air.
The B&B is lovingly furnished with antiques and traditional pieces, but there is absolutely no stuffiness or pretension. This is a place meant to be enjoyed.
The high ceilings, formal marble fireplaces and ceiling medallions in the living and dining rooms are accented by Victorian-era chandeliers, mirrors, paintings and accessories. All of the fireplaces were made by the home's first owner, W. Snedeker, whose initials Ms. Gorlach has found inscribed in the marble of each, though largely hidden from view.
The upstairs guest rooms are cozy, well-appointed and comfortable -- one even has a kitchen, complete with a vintage stove, fridge and Hoosier cabinet.
It wasn't always like this. When Ms. Gorlach first became entranced with the 1846 Italianate villa, its elegance was chipped and tarnished. Typical of the toll the years had taken was the home's hidden cupola. It had been plastered with thick layers of tar paper and was reduced little more than an ugly black bump on the roof.
"No one even knew the cupola was there," said Ms. Gorlach. "It was completely covered, and the windows were in pieces on the floor." (Now a ladder leads up to what is a unique lookout tower for grownups, with windows on all four sides.)
The house, with Snedeker's marble fireplaces in every room, was charming -- but the renovation was a nightmare. Ms. Gorlach, a seasoned old-home owner, possessed the skills and energy to tackle this huge project, though.
Born in Krakow, Poland, she received her master's degree in engineering and architecture from Krakow Polytechnic University. When her husband decided to make the move to America in 1970, she was reluctant: It was a huge step for the young woman to leave her family and support system. But "making it in New York gives you a sense of assurance," she said. "If you can make it here, you know you're going to be all right."
She moved to Saint Paul's Avenue in Stapleton in 1978, and commuted to Manhattan to work. But during a hiatus in her architectural and design career, she decided to cut out the commute, instead giving local real estate a try.
"Working in real estate was so wonderful. I saw great houses I never would have been able to see otherwise," she said. "I learned a great deal about function and design." (And she found the house on Taylor Street.)
"But real estate was hard for me in many ways, because I'm somewhat shy, so I went back to my original job in Manhattan," she admitted.
Meanwhile, she kept working on the house. It was a labor of love that continues to this day.
"One side (number 90) had to be completely gutted." There was plumbing, electrical and carpentry work -- not to mention stripping woodwork, painting, plastering, wallpapering -- before the house even could be furnished. That was yet another project and Ms. Gorlach searched for furniture and accessories, putting her creativity and decorating eye to work.
When Ms. Gorlach's Manhattan job came to an end in 1995, she opened an antiques store, first in New Dorp, and then in West Brighton.
"But the location wasn't so good for antiques, it was a lot of work and not so much money, so I decided to stop," said Ms. Gorlach.
Instead, she sold a piece of property she owned, making it possible to start the new B&B endeavor.
"Guests who come to B&Bs are special people," she said. "They're more sophisticated and very gracious. And they're very appreciative of the things you do to make their stay pleasant."
Her typical breakfast is something like oven-baked French toast with sausages, fruit salad, juice, coffee and tea. She also bakes frequently and leaves snacks for guests on the run. There's afternoon tea, too, and lunch by request. Not to mention that delicious apple pie, topped with whipped cream -- yum.
Recent visitors from Washington state, Canada and the Caribbean entered their reviews in her guest book: "Staying here was a wonderful experience!" "Wonderful hospitality." "All your efforts really show."
One young woman wrote, "The bed was great!"
"She couldn't stop raving about the comforter," Ms. Gorlach said.
The innkeeper isn't about to rest on her laurels, however. Up the steps to the third floor, she showed us the home's last renovation frontier: An unfinished rear bedroom and adjoining enclosed porch.
"This will make a lovely bedroom and little kitchen," she said. "I need to get to work."