House with a History

It used to be a brothel, but when Nikki Lloyd and Ryan Whaley set eyes on the red brick building in Sandusky, Ohio, they saw only potential. Now, it’s a place where they live, work and serve drinks from a new speakeasy-style bar.
Nikki Lloyd and Ryan Whaley knew the building had a past before they bought it two years ago. The northwest Ohio natives remember Ryan’s father telling them that the two-story, red-brick structure, built a block from Sandusky’s waterfront in the late 1800s by a winery as lodging for its employees, housed a high-class brothel known as The Green Door following the winery’s Prohibition-era demise. Further research revealed that the building served as a seedy hotel, then a flophouse, after the madam closed her business in the 1970s.

The history only made the building more attractive to the couple, recently returned from Colorado and looking for a spot to open Ryan’s public relations firm, aptly named Green Door Media Works. “It’s a unique hook and a very neat story,” Ryan, now 35, enthuses. Nikki loved the fact that it was only 15 feet wide and had two doors in front.

Their delight in the property’s bad-girl reputation spawned a plan that put a tiny, 1930s-style speakeasy in the storefront, an office for Ryan’s business directly above the bar, and an apartment or two to rent in the remaining space. But they became so enamored with the place that they decided to ditch the apartments and live there instead.
“We love crazy things,” Nikki says. “So it’s just fun for people to be like, ‘You live in an old brothel?’’ Yes, we do!”

Transforming a dilapidated former den of iniquity into a pillar of the community was a yearlong challenge. Nikki, a 36-year-old Sam’s Club pharmacist who’d honed her restoration skills by renovating and decorating her previous addresses, describes a building with a basement full of junk and a first floor with joists that had actually rotted away from the walls, casualties of a limestone foundation that filled with water when the sump pump failed. The couple, with help from their families, gutted the interior, replaced the first floor and fixed the leaky roof. Nikki estimates the group chipped up to three inches of plaster off the brick walls. The most unappetizing task, however, was clearing what they found beneath the old ceilings.

“It was just probably a hundred years of dust and grime,” Nikki says. “And we found some petrified … birds, rats, squirrels, mice in between the roof and the ceiling.”
Next, contractors replaced plumbing and electrical wiring and erected walls between the 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath loft living space at the back of the building, the 750-square-foot bar and Ryan’s same-sized office upstairs. They also built a 300-square-foot addition for a utility room and full bath off the back of the first floor and added a deck onto the side of the second. A section of the second floor was removed to accommodate the multilevel staircase, a focal point in the open floor plan with its suspension-wire railing and oak treads made from the salvaged siding of a 300-year-old barn.

Nikki and Ryan installed other trendy features, such as a stainless-steel bar in the kitchen and an LCD fireplace in the living room to create what Nikki calls “a modern industrial look.” But they also paid tribute to the building’s architectural legacy. They left the brick walls exposed and saved the original hardwood flooring in Ryan’s office with a good cleaning and coat of polyurethane. 
Nikki’s carpenter father used 6-inch wood trim removed during demolition to frame new doors or replace rotting or cracked woodwork around existing entrances and windows. Three of the seven upstairs-bedroom doors were turned into desks for Ryan’s office by sanding off the paint, laying them on top of discount-store wood desks and topping them with glass. The couple even made a 9-foot-long conference table out of ceiling beams and 2-by-4 wall studs.

“The legs are actually banister posts from the hardware store,” Nikki says. “We just spray-painted them black and turned them upside down.” 
Although the couple opened their high-end cocktail lounge, the Volstead Bar – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Volstead Act, nickname of the National Prohibition Act – early this year, they’ve maintained the building’s gritty exterior. “We fell in love with the outside of the building,” Nikki stresses. Improvements were limited to a couple of coats of dark-gray automotive paint on the roofing extending over the second-floor windows, new light fixtures – and, of course, green front doors.

The Volstead Bar
The only confirmation of the Volstead Bar’s existence at 316 E. Water St. in Sandusky is a small, green-neon sign, 12 inches long by 6 inches wide, in the linen-curtained front window. Ryan Whaley believes the anonymity contributes to the illicit atmosphere he and co-owner Nikki Lloyd are striving to create in their Prohibition-era speakeasy, a tiny, dimly lit space featuring exposed brick walls and a poured-concrete floor with a bronze metallic finish. Music by the likes of Al Jolson and Fats Waller plays while Ryan and Nikki mix drinks at a massive, curving bar custom-crafted of local oak. There isn’t a television in the house; cell-phone use is actively discouraged.

“It seems like you’re in a secret place,” Ryan says.

The drink menu consists of 47 classic cocktails, all made with top-shelf liquor. Prices range from $8 for a Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer and fresh-squeezed lime juice) to $12 for an Aviation (Plymouth gin, Luxardo cherry liqueur, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and crème de violette). Snacks include a Mediterranean olive mix and handmade truffles from Sandusky’s Tre Sorelle Cioccolato. Ryan and Nikki also maintain a limited selection of wines and beers. “This isn’t the place where you order a Jager Bomb,” Ryan says.

Sitting down for a drink at the Volstead can be a challenge, depending on the day and hour. Ryan counts less than two dozen stainless-steel stools at the bar and five oak tables. The number of unoccupied seats is advertised to passersby by the number of green lights illuminated on the front of the building. A single red light indicates that all stools are taken.
“If you don’t have a seat,” Ryan says, “we don’t let you in.”
Volstead Bar is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4 to midnight Fridays and 2 to midnight on  Sundays.
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