VERMILION — Philip Laurien was just stopping through Vermilion on his way to Buffalo when he first spotted the stately old home.
Laurien was living in Orlando at the time, but Ohio “felt like home,” he said.
He had gone to college here, had worked in city planning in Franklin and Delaware counties, had “grown up on the same lake” in Buffalo. He had even spent many hours riding his motorcycle from Columbus to Sherod Park on the west side of Vermilion, “and I never went that last mile into town.”
It was 2010, and he swung through to visit an old college buddy on his way to his mom’s house in New York. It was on that trip that he visited the historic downtown and realized something: “I wanted to live here.”
He was 62, going through a divorce and thinking about retirement. He had spent years in community planning and real estate consulting and was considering options to earn some income.
“I thought, ‘What do I like to do?’ And I like to build,” he said.
Laurien, who built his first five homes himself, felling trees in the New Hampshire woods to have sawn into boards, searched online for “income properties for sale in Vermilion.”
Up popped the Captain Bell house — a 21-room house on Liberty Avenue a block from the library.
Laurien toured the house, which he describes, maybe charitably, as “scruffy.”
It had lingered on the market for six years, carved into apartments upstairs and a flower shop on the first floor. A second building, a 1920s-era garage, was a jewelry store and an art studio.
Laurien took measurements and “5,000 photographs.” He took them back to his home in Orlando and studied it, working out floor plans and estimated work costs and budgets. He consulted his daughter, Whitney, who works in the hospitality industry. He met with the mayor and local business owners, asking them what kind of business would work in the neighborhood.
A year later he made an offer, much lower than the asking price. He got it in September 2011 and set to work, expecting it to take 18 months to open. His daughter “taught him the business” of running an inn such as “teaching him to clean to a five-star status.”
Twice that amount of time, $250,000 and 7,000 hours of work later, the Captain Bell House Bed and Breakfast opened in May 2013.
The home was built by the Delker family in 1876, but it is known by its second owner’s name, Capt. George Bell. The home was one of the dozens that earned its “village of lake captains” nickname during its days as a shipbuilding town in the 1800s. Bell lived there from 1899 until he died in 1925, though his widow lived there for years afterward.
The home’s natural grandeur was dulled by time and neglect in the 1900s. Sometime around 1950 it was turned into a nursing home. Black-and-brown checkerboard linoleum covered 19 of its rooms. Entire rooms, including ceilings, were painted institutional “split pea green.”
Laurien removed a rusty fire escape from the second-floor apartment and built a small balcony from which he can watch the sun rise and set. He gutted the building, updated wiring and plumbing, installed a new roof and even fixing the crawlspace areas to help heat the building. He spent 500 hours on scraping, sanding and painting the house’s 50 decorative corbels tucked under the roof line.
The house was painted a creamy yellow, a choice the house seemed to approve of when he removed a chunk of exterior paneling and uncovered the original siding — in the same color Laurien had chosen.
A bay window in the kitchen was nearly covered by paneling. The steam radiators that were added in the Bell years are still in operation. Both floors of the home have 10-foot ceilings and there is a basement, a highly unusual feature for the Harbourtown neighborhood.
“You would have to be very wealthy to have a basement dug back then. They didn’t have machines, they would have had to dig it out through this clay and shale by hand,” he said.
There are three rentable areas: the “Captain’s Quarters,” a self-contained apartment at the rear of the home with a living room, full kitchen and bath, laundry facilities and one bedroom, with a sleeper couch; the “Sunshine Room,” with a queen bed and attached full bath; and the “Cozy Cottage,” the fully-contained, pet-friendly converted garage/studio space next to the home with a sitting room, bedroom, kitchenette and laundry facilities. The house’s common rooms include the kitchen, dining room and parlor with original soapstone fireplace. The innkeeper apartment upstairs has a living room with a bay window, a master bedroom with in-suite bathroom, a full kitchen and a guest suite bedroom and a half-bath.
Laurien’s business became successful, earning accolades and referrals from nearby businesses. The house is three blocks from Lake Erie, and within walking distance to a dozen restaurants, including the five-star Chez Francois and the Wine Vault. Guests receive breakfast certificates to Granny Joe’s, two blocks down.
Laurien is selling the business along with the property and the furnishings for $650,000. He hopes it will continue as a bed-and-breakfast, although its zoning would also allow it to be strictly residential.
Properties in good condition in the neighborhood rarely go on the market, typically selling quickly by word of mouth, he said, because the district is so desirable. Decades spent in city planning give him the insight to value the district’s vintage features, which are newly popular again: proximity to local dining and entertainment and well-maintained communities.
Health issues and his plan to move to be closer to his daughter in Colorado prompted his decision to sell.
“When your daughter tells you she wants you to come be with her, you go,” he said. “I came here to save this building and make a sustainable income, and I did. I would hope someone would carry it on.”
For information, visit www.captainbellhouse.com or call (440) 714-5082.
The house is at 5760 Liberty Ave., Vermilion.
Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.