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WATCH NOW: 'There comes a time to walk away:' After 60-plus years, Massad House Hotel owner sells the building and closes the hotel
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WATCH NOW: 'There comes a time to walk away:' After 60-plus years, Massad House Hotel owner sells the building and closes the hotel

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John S. Massad took a gamble in late 1959.

He was working at his family’s Massad’s House Restaurant on North Fourth Street in downtown Richmond when the hotel building next door came up for sale.

“I hated the restaurant business,” Massad said.

But family was important to him, he said. When his parents opened the restaurant in 1948, his mother told him that he needed to help his father in running it. “The last thing I wanted to do was to work in a restaurant. But it’s funny how God works to do what your parents tell you and how things turn out.”

When Massad found out he could buy the four-story hotel at 11 N. Fourth St. for $120,000, he nervously jumped at the chance.

“It was like rolling the dice. It was a gamble,” he said.

He put his entire life’s savings at the time — $10,000 — as a down payment to buy the hotel in February 1960. The building’s owner financed the rest.

“Everything was built up around us. I just felt it was natural. I figured, what did I have to lose except $10,000. It doesn’t sound like a lot money now, but at that time it was a lot of money,” he said.

Buying the hotel — it was first called Massad’s House Hotel and later the Massad House Hotel — helped launch him into a business of owning more than a dozen hotels and motels in the Richmond area and across Virginia. He also bought other buildings in downtown Richmond near the hotel. He later created a company selling office furniture and providing workplace interior design.

“It changed the whole way of looking at things,” he said about buying the hotel. “We got out of the food business and got into the lodging business.”

But the Massad House Hotel has been sold, and it closed on Dec. 31.

Massad, 92, sold that building and the restaurant building next door, along with three other nearby buildings and three parking lots in late December for $4.4 million.

An entity tied to Douglas Development Corp., a Washington-based developer with significant property holdings in downtown Richmond, acquired the buildings and parking lots. The company plans to renovate the hotel, rebrand it and reopen it in the next year or so.

“It’s sad because I’ve been in downtown for such a long time. There are lots of memories there. But it was the right decision,” Massad said. “I’m just burned out. There comes a time to walk away.”

He and his family have kept the JMJ Corp. office furniture business at 7910 W. Broad St. in Henrico County.

“It was a stepping-stone for us to go from running the restaurant to the hotel to where we are right now,” Massad said about the office furniture business.

***

In the beginning, Massad was worried about running a hotel.

“I had no idea that first year if I would make it or not,” he said. “I would go back and work behind the desk at the hotel, take a shower and then go to work at the restaurant to make sure that I didn’t miss a beat because I had a family that was growing. And I had payments to make. It was a gamble.”

Single rooms went for $1.25 a night back then and suites for $2.50 a night. Rooms also were available for $15 a week.

Massad, a devout Catholic, also did a lot of praying to make sure his new business venture would work.

Even the legal name of his company — JMJ Corp. — has religious overtones.

JMJ doesn’t stand for John Massad Jr., as many might think. He’s not a junior. His son is.

JMJ stands for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He remembers growing up Catholic and the nuns having him and other students put those initials at the top of their school papers.

“I figured if I didn’t make it, God’s going down with me,” Massad said with a chuckle. “But I live by them.”

The reason why Massad used the initials for Jesus, Mary and Joseph for his corporate name and let people assume it stood for his name was that “people would think you are a religious freak. I would tell somebody that I knew understood.”

***

For Massad, the hospitality business was good initially.

A couple of years after buying the hotel, he decided to excavate the basement and turn it into a membership club where liquor by the drink was sold. He spent about $600,000 to do the project, he said.

“That was a big undertaking,” he said.

The Rebel Room, as the club was called, was successful until liquor-by-the-drink was legalized for restaurants in Virginia in 1968.

In 1964, he bought what was then the Richmond Motel at Chamberlayne Avenue and Lombardy Street for $210,000.

That began his expansion into buying additional hotels and motels in Virginia.

He figures he owned about 15 hotels and motels in the region and across Virginia, including Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and the Roanoke area. Those properties all operated under different names.

The 75-room Massad House in Richmond provided a budget-minded traveler with a place to stay, said Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism, the nonprofit organization that offers services to support the area’s hospitality industry.

“They were always very accommodating, gracious and very professional,” Berry said. “When budget-conscientious groups would come to town, I would go and inspect the Massad House and inspect the rooms. They were always clean, older rooms but very well-maintained. It provided a really good alternative for affordable accommodations.”

Massad eventually sold the other hotels in the ’70s and ’80s, but kept the Massad House.

In recent years, some of the hotel rooms at the Massad House went to people who lived there and paid rent for a week at a time. Some of those residents had their rents paid for or got assistance from nonprofits.

All guests had to vacate the hotel at the end of December per the sale agreement, Massad said.

***

Douglas Development plans to renovate the hotel and reopen it, said Norman Jemal, a principal at Douglas Development, which his father, Douglas Jemal, founded in 1985 and serves as its president.

“We’re working through our plans now. It’s evolving,” Jemal said.

Douglas Development owns about 20 buildings in Richmond, including the former 23-story Central National Bank building at North Third and East Broad streets, which was turned into Deco at CNB, a complex with 200 apartments. The company bought that iconic structure in 2005 and began its redevelopment in late 2013.

It also owns the building at 411 E. Franklin St., which it acquired in 2004, and sits next to the hotel building on Fourth Street.

“It’s a nice little cluster of buildings there,” Jemal said.

The Massad family real estate portfolio included a restaurant building at 9 N. Fourth St., which is next to the hotel. Massad’s father had purchased that building in 1948, and the family operated a restaurant there until sometime in the late 1960s, when they started to lease the space to a variety of operators over the years.

K-Town Kitchen & Bar, a Korean and Asian cuisine restaurant, operates there now. But the owner says he’s leaving the space by the end of February.

Douglas Development also plans to renovate the four-story apartment building at 10 N. Fourth St., which is currently called the Massad Bldg., Jemal said. Massad bought that building — then called the Centralia’s Apartments — in February 1966 for $67,500.

The portfolio’s other buildings are a three-story office building at 400 E. Main St., at the corner of Fourth and Main streets; and an office building at 408-410 E. Main St.

Massad said he has lots of fond memories of his businesses in downtown Richmond during the past six decades.

“But it was the right decision to sell. It was time to move on,” he said. “God works in funny ways.”

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