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Historic home in heart of Grand Rapids, Ohio, once was spa, retreat

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An architectural jewel of northwest Ohio is headed for the auction block this week with the hope that a kindly bidder will rescue it and return it to its former status as a public business that highlighted its unique features and status.

The famed Kerr House in the village of Grand Rapids, a three-story Victorian-era mansion that dates to 1885, will be sold Thursday at a public auction conducted by Pamela Rose Auction Co. LLC.

Bidding will be both on-site and online, beginning at 6:30 p.m., said Roger Turner, the auctioneer. The house is at 17777 Beaver St., just two blocks east of Grand Rapids Front Street business district along the Maumee River. It sits on more than an acre.

“I think there’s going to be really good interest in it. If you wanted a bed and breakfast or a destination or a place to attract people to, you start out with huge name recognition right away,” he added.

For 35 years, Perrysburg resident Laurie Hostetler owned the Kerr House and ran it as an elegant spa and health retreat, utilizing its eight bedrooms for clients to have multiple-day stays. But the business ran into financial difficulties in 2008 and though its income stream recovered, the business was crushed under a large load of debt.

The Kerr House’s last guest was in mid-March of last year. It was then owned and occupied by a northwest Ohio couple who had the winning bid in a Wood County sheriff’s sale at the end of 2014. The couple planned to run an event business out of the house, but their plans changed abruptly this year, and they opted last month to sell it at auction.

“When [the owners] called, we didn’t even realize it was the Kerr House until we looked at the address. I just love this place,”  Mr. Turner said.

Ted Ligibel, a professor of historic preservation, said the Kerr House “is one of the most intact examples of Queen Anne architecture in Ohio. It’s just a stunning example of that. It’s a treasure, there’s no doubt about it.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mr. Turner said he had a difficult time estimating the value of the two-story, 5,000-square-foot Victorian style mansion. There aren’t comparable houses locally to help determine a value.

At one point during its 131-year history the house was valued at $1.6 million. But at the Dec. 31, 2014, Wood County Sheriff’s sale it sold for $256,595 to current owners Bob and Jodi Kieffer. County records show its valuation at $138,300.

Mr. Ligibel said that to many, the home is priceless. “I guess what it goes for at auction is what the price will be, but it is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. It’s unlike anything in Grand Rapids and Ohio,” he said.

The Kieffers purchased the house and had discussed using it as an event venue for parties or weddings, a possible bed and breakfast, and a family health retreat. However, private issues forced the couple to change their plans, and now they wish to downsize to a smaller home.

“A part of us is kind of pretty sad that our plans have changed and we won’t be able to do what we wanted to,” Mr. Kieffer said. “But we were hoping that whoever buys it, it stays a historical thing. … Every time I talk about it, I don’t want to get rid of it,” he added.

The couple lives in the house, and Mr. Kieffer said maintaining it is a big chore, especially with both he and his wife, Jodi, holding full-time jobs.

Few homes in northwest Ohio have as rich a history as the Kerr House.

Its first owner was Benjamin Franklin Kerr, a wealthy landowner, grain-elevator owner, and elected official in the village of Grand Rapids.

He hired famed Toledo architect Edward O. Fallis to design and build the house. It took three years to build the house, whose bricks were handmade and fired in a kiln constructed on the site.

Mr. Fallis was a premier architect in Toledo in his day, designing the Valentine Theatre, St. Paul’s Methodist Church, the Bartley Mansion, the Toledo State Hospital, the courthouse in Adrian, and eight other courthouses in northwest Ohio.

His design gave the Kerr House several stained glass windows including one over a drawing room fireplace, a slate roof, a Victorian-style tower, handcrafted oak doors, marble sinks and copper bathtubs, and a wraparound porch so family and visitors could enjoy the outdoors and relax.

The interior woodwork includes fixture and trim made of white oak, red oak, cherry, butternut, maple, and ash. Rooms have 11-foot high ceilings. The house has seven bedrooms and 3½ bathrooms. The walls are three and four bricks thick.

“They’ve done stuff with this house that I’ve never seen before,” Mr. Turner said. “They had two fireplaces, and they split the chimney in two to go up the sides to put stained glass in middle above the fireplace,” he said.

“I was amazed to learn they had to build a place to make the bricks before they could build the house,” he added.

Mrs. Hostetler said she was told that the home’s opulence might have stemmed from a friendly rivalry between Benjamin Kerr’s wife, Anna, and her sister who lived in McComb.

“So they didn’t spare any expense,” Mrs. Hostetler said. “The fireplaces, the wood, it was all the best you could buy.”

Surprisingly, the Kerr family was not the first occupants of the house. A master wood craftsman and his wife moved in for a year before the Kerrs so he could do the woodwork using lumber found in the Bowling Green area.

The home stayed as the residence of the Kerr family until 1977, passing first to Mr. Kerr’s son, Clifton Colfax Kerr, then the original owner’s grandson, Clifton Benjamin Kerr. The grandson sold the home in 1977 to Mrs. Hostetler and her late husband, David.

It was Mrs. Hostetler, a proponent of yoga, who had the idea for the spa and to restore the Kerr House to its former glory, using Mr. Fallis’ blueprints, designs, and drawings, which were found in the attic rolled up in linen paper window shades.

The attic, she said, was a mess as well as a time capsule. “I found books of fabrics for men’s suits. There were some antiques, but also volumes of egg boxes from [the Kerrs’] store. There were letters and pictures and lots of books, medical books,” Mrs. Hostetler said.

There were stacks of magazines from the late 1800s, but most useful was the book of wallpaper fabrics used in the house when it was built, Mrs. Hostetler said. ”I found samples of all their wallpapers. Their main colors were rose,” she said.

Mr. Ligibel said Mrs. Hostetler did “a literal restoration of the building to the way it looked when it was built.” He said he often took students there to study the house.

The Hostetlers ran Kerr House as a spa, focusing on healthy meals and fitness activities. It gained a national reputation, with clients coming from all 50 states and several countries.

The spa was featured once on a travel segment of ABC-TV’s Good Morning America with a film crew spending two days at the retreat.

But Mrs. Hostetler said her Kerr House business ran into financial trouble in 2008 with the recession and the resulting drop in income. She kept her staff of 30 employees, perhaps longer than she should have, she said.

“We were hit really, really hard because so many people just lost their jobs. They would call to cancel and see if they could get a refund. We didn’t have to, but we did because they needed the money,” Mrs. Hostetler said.

Eventually, Kerr House fell behind in its taxes, eventually totaling $300,000 in back taxes owed and penalties.

“The business had built back up again, and people were coming back,” Mrs. Hostetler said. “But we had trouble making up for those lean years, and those taxes, we just couldn’t overcome them.”

A social media funding campaign to save the business was unsuccessful, so she decided to retire and let the house go to sheriff’s sale.

“The house had such a great effect on our guests. All of the energy of the house helped them, I believe,” Mr. Hostetler said. “It was such a great business. I would love for someone to have [Kerr House] now who will really love it and take care of it. I would like to see it used so that it could be shared with the public.”

Mr. Turner said the house has possibilities to operate once again as a spa, or perhaps a bed and breakfast, or an event facility.

Regarding the auction, Mr. Ligibel said, “One can hope that it will be purchased by someone who really understands the importance of its history to northwest Ohio, and the state, and certainly to the community of Grand Rapids.”

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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