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Touring the Steele Mansion

Posted on March 4, 2016 at 11:20 PM

The last weekend in February I’ve been attending a women’s writer’s retreat. This year the retreat was in Painesville, a new location for us. I thought I’d share with you a story of that mansion.


One Sunday morning early in 2011, Carol Shamakian of Painesville, Ohio, sent her husband Arthur to the grocery store for a few items. More than an hour later when he hadn’t returned, she began to worry. Soon after, he came home.

“Here are the groceries,” he said, putting the bags on the kitchen table. “Ánd here’s the deed to a mansion.”

On his mission that morning he passed the George Steele mansion at 384 Mentor Ave. (U.S. Route 20) and saw a sign advertising an auction. He had stopped to find more information and was soon chatting with the man who lived next door.

The mansion had been built between 1863 and 1867 for George Steele, a member of a family from the Western Reserve in Connecticut. He had vowed to become rich and powerful and have the biggest house in Painesville, a city northeast of Cleveland.

He worked at a variety of jobs and became interested in politics. He was a Republican and entertained such people as Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. In fact, Garfield, whose home Lawnfield is a few miles down the road in Mentor, delivered campaign speeches from the Steele front porch.

The area that supported the circular front porch also served as a safe room on the Underground Railroad.

“Harriet Tubman stayed here 11 times,” Carol said.

Rumors had it that George’s brother Horace was a banker and embezzled $400,000 in coins. What he did with that many coins was finally confirmed by the family. Carol said that he gave them to the runaways so they’d have something when they got to Canada.

After Steele’s death, the money stopped and the house slipped into bankruptcy in 1917 and was foreclosed upon, Carol Shamakian said.

Lake Erie College across the street bought the mansion in 1921, using it for the president’s home. The third-floor ballroom became a gymnasium. Some of the rooms, especially in the servants’ headquarters in the two-story addition in back, served as the women’s dormitory.

In the basement, one big gathering room held a secret entry for the girls.

“There was a door down here that the girls could use to enter late at night,” Carol related on a tour.

Another famous visitor was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She visited when an Aviators’ Club was founded at the college.The Shamakians honored Earhart by naming a room for her.

“We don’t know what room she stayed in, we just picked a room and gave it her name,” Carol said.

When men were admitted to the college, the house was turned into a men’s dormitory. The college sold the house in 1981 when the upkeep became too much. The new owners converted it to apartments.

“In 2001, some repairs were being done to the roof and the worker lost control of the blow torch,” Carol said.

Only the top floor was damaged, but the large house sat idle for 10 years. During that time, scavengers stripped the house of metal and wiring, anything they could sell.

“This was the home’s most dismal period,” Carol said, noting that the wood was exposed to the elements and rotted.

The day Arthur made the commitment to buy the property for what Carol calls “the value of the land” was only weeks away from a scheduled date with a wrecking ball.

“We had built houses for 20 years so I guess we needed a fixer upper,” said Carol who was a radiologist. Arthur, who earned his degree in finance, could play with other peoples’ money, she laughed.

They hauled away 17 Dumpsters full of debris; reconstructed the servants’ wing and added a third story “because we could.” They replaced 138 windows and enlisted restoration specialists to restore the woodwork and fireplaces.

“We don’t have real fire in them” Carol said. “It’s had one fire and that’s enough.”

The Shamakians used products from Lake and neighboring Geauga counties. Antiques came from Carol’s visits to estate auctions and other antiquing ventures.

“This is my favorite,” she said pointing to a collection of rug beaters hanging on the wall in another basement gathering room.

Old-time photos hang in the hallways of the former servants’ wing.

“I keep hoping someone will say ‘That’s Grandmother,’ but they haven’t yet, said Carol.

While they were working on the house, people who recognized their car would stop and see what we were doing, Carol said.

Last June 1,000 people showed up when the Steele Mansion opened as a bed and breakfast and party house. It has 16 guest rooms, some of them with a sitting room. Carol is reluctant to say how many rooms there are overall.

“How do you count the sitting rooms off guest rooms? Or what about the little room off the conservatory?”

Rooms have names of Steele family members, or perhaps the color scheme. For instance, Room 202 is in the front whose immediate view is the top of the circular porch where a spotlight at night shines onto the house as well as into room. That room offers a view of Lake Erie College. It is also known as The Red Room because of the deep red in the background of the carpeting; the deep red bedspread, the upholstered ottoman (that also helps short people into bed) and the seat cushion on the rocking chair.

The continental-style breakfast is ready by 8 a.m. in the basement in the rooms through which the Lake Erie College girls made their late-night escapades. The spread generally includes scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, bacon or sausage, oatmeal, cold cereal choices, yogurt, fresh fruit, breads for toasting, plus juice, coffee, hot water for tea.

A variety of other activities find their way to the mansion. One recent weekend, a writers’ group held a retreat and used rooms in the basement while on the main floor a rehearsal was held on Friday night in preparation for the Saturday afternoon wedding ceremony in the conservatory and dinner in the room adjacent to the bar. Writers were advised if they wanted to leave for an evening meal or other activities, they could use the back door without interrupting the wedding party.

Some of the mansion’s guests have been speakers who come to the college, said Arthur, taking time to snap a few pictures of a group who visited one weekend.

The Shamakians try to promote their community and it isn’t unusual to find locals in for Comfort Food Mondays; Happy Hours on Hump Day Wednesday and Finally Friday; Dessert and Tours on specific dates; a perfume-making class; a Millionaires’ Row Speech and Dinner; or even a craft show.

The back door has a ramp which makes the huge building handicap accessible. That entrance winds past the kitchen to the elevator that makes stops on all three floors.

“The bed and breakfast is payback for all we’ve put into it,” Carol said “We’re trying to make it pay for itself. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll turn it into assisted living.”


If You Go

The Steele Mansion is a bed and breakfast located at 348 Mentor Avenue which is also U.S. Route 20 in Painesville, Ohio, in Lake County. Besides the 16 guest rooms, the mansion has a parlor, library, conservatory and gathering room for public use. Rooms rent for $199 a night, breakfast included. Rooms with a sitting room are $229. Rates are expected to be adjusted in April 2016. Wifi is complimentary.

Further information is available by calling 440-639-7948 or visiting www.SteeleMansion.com.


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