On their way out the door of the hotel in the morning, the Sullivan girls like to stop in the lobby to give front-desk worker Patricia Budd a kiss.
Their mother might chat with Colombian pilots headed to flights at nearby Dulles International Airport, Secret Service agents between assignments, or families being relocated by the State Department or one of the many high-tech firms based in Northern Virginia.
It’s not what Madeline Sullivan expected when a chimney fire smoked them out of their home in Ashburn in January, forcing them to seek temporary housing until repairs were complete. But it’s what can happen at extended-stay hotels in the suburbs that pinwheel out from the nation’s capital, where there’s so much change that communities form in unexpected places.
The Homewood Suites by Hilton Dulles-North/Loudoun sits at the bulldozer-rumbling heart of Loudoun County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. The population has quadrupled since 1990, and two-thirds of the growth in recent years has come from people moving in, not babies being born.
Sullivan greets her neighbors in her Ashburn development. But after nearly nine years, she said, she feels none of the familiarity of her childhood neighborhood in the Bronx, or her husband’s on Long Island, where everyone seemed to know everyone else. In Ashburn, she said, “everyone is in their own world.”
Not so at the Homewood Suites. Maybe it’s the stop-right-there boisterous, happy greeting that Djuana Hale, a recent transplant from North Carolina, calls out from the front desk. Maybe it’s that so many guests are on the cusp of a big change: a promotion, a new house, a dangerous move overseas. In a region full of newcomers, this hotel squished between construction sites, a strip mall, corporate offices and a busy road has become a surprising source of friendships.
“We’ve met more people at the hotel than we ever did in our neighborhood,” Sullivan said. “We’re all in limbo. Everyone is a little more open than they normally would be, I guess.”
At some point, after seeing the Sullivans at breakfast every morning, fellow guest George Budd commented on how quickly the girls had mastered the waffle iron. His wife, Patricia, asked what brought the family to the hotel. Madeline Sullivan hesitated a moment, then told her about the fire.
Soon enough, the Budds shared their story, too. The retirees had been wintering in Hilton Head when a pipe burst in their home at the Belmont Country Club development in Ashburn. In 10 hours, 7,600 gallons of water had poured in.
“You couldn’t walk through the kitchen without an umbrella,” Patricia Budd said.
And so people trade contractors’ names and compare notes about insurance coverage, worrying and complaining a little and laughing it off together. Over time — at meals, at the pool, on the elevator — they get to know one another. They chuckle at the weird moments of hotel life, such as the sudden influx of tour groups: One night, everyone at dinner would be wearing bright yellow shirts from some elementary school. Another day, everyone in the lobby would be Chinese.
As guest Sandy Frain was getting ready to wash clothes in the laundry room one morning, she realized with a start that the enormous man who had just offered her detergent was a player for the Washington Redskins.
One of the women who make omelets at breakfast is helping Frain’s son learn Spanish. The family — husband, wife, two teens and two Boston terriers — has been holed up in a two-bedroom suite for almost 10 months, waiting for Army paperwork to come through for her husband’s job change.
“My neighbor downstairs —” Madeline Sullivan said, then laughed. “See? I’m calling them neighbors.”
Her girls, 10-year-old Angela and 8-year-old twins Gabriella and Emma, have decorated their room with posters and flowers and trophies they won in races.
Tom and Lourine Cooney have been at the hotel since January, when their home was destroyed in a fire. That’s long enough that she bought a convection oven for the little kitchen and has used it to bake pies. It’s long enough that their dog, Brooke, has learned to open the door of their suite with her paw, trot down the hall to the elevator and ride down to the lobby for a dog biscuit.
Last week, Robert Griffin III stopped by to see a former college teammate, recently drafted by the Redskins, and chatted with Tom Cooney — who said he was in Redskins fan heaven.
When the Cooneys’ son joined the Coast Guard, they held a party at the Homewood Suites. The Budds had moved home by then but came back for the celebration.
“I missed it here,” Patricia Budd said. “I missed the people.”
So she applied for a job at the front desk.
On a recent morning, she chatted with Lourine Cooney about her daughter, who is just learning to drive. “When are they going to start work on your new house?” Budd asked. Cooney explained that the bad weather this winter had delayed everything.
Budd nodded sympathetically as the women agreed that the material goods lost in their homes weren’t that important.
“Bricks and mortar,” Budd said. She and her husband have been through much worse than their flood: A grandson with heart problems. The 9/11 terrorist attacks while both Budds worked in Lower Manhattan. Cancer.
As she talked, Budd kept an eye out for the Sullivans, hoping to see them pass through the lobby. The two families are neighbors outside the hotel as well, she had learned.
“They live right up the street from me,” she said. And if not for the hotel, “I would never have met them.”
After four months there, Madeline Sullivan said, her daughters are ready to go home. They’ve grown tired of sharing a room and beds; the thrill of playing hide-and-seek and riding the glass elevators is gone. She’s ready, too. But she’s not sorry about their stay.
“There are interruptions in our lives for a reason,” Sullivan said. “That’s how I feel. We’re supposed to learn something from it.”
Sullivan paused for a moment, suddenly teary. Last week, for the first time, the girls brought guests to school for Grandparents Day.
Patricia Budd told Sullivan at the end of the school visit that she and George had loved it and had already marked their calendars: They’ll be going to Grandparents Day next year, too.