Back From the Ashes

After a fire devoured its third floor, the Steele Mansion sat roofless, vacant and decaying for nearly 10 years. It was slated for demolition when Carol and Arthur Shamakian came along with dreams of converting the former residence into an upscale inn. Now, as the mansion opens its doors, we take a look at the finished product, as well as the work that went into restoring the mansion’s former glory.
Carol Shamakian leads the way down the second-floor hall of Steele Mansion and ushers us into Room 203. There are accommodations that are bigger, with all the amenities of a five-star hotel suite, in the French Second Empire residence-turned-inn in Painesville, Ohio. But Sarah’s Room — named after the first wife of the house’s original owner, banker and politician George Worthington Steele — is the innkeeper’s
 favorite. It is an unabashedly feminine space flaunting dusty pink walls and a private bath with a footed tub and his-and-her marble sinks.

Carol stops to show off the elaborate silk-moiré draperies trimmed in heavy cream fringe and organza jabots and the 1850s chest of flame mahogany. The latter is a prized antique in a place filled with them. “This is a hatbox,” she says, as she carefully opens what appears to be a large, square drawer.
Downstairs, workers are staining the bottom steps of the massive walnut staircase in the ochre-colored front hall. It’s one of the last tasks in a long renovation project that has turned Steele Mansion into a venue so in demand that it hosted several parties and weddings even before it was finished. Indeed, the house has become something of an architectural celebrity in the community.

When it was completed in 1867, the mansion was a testament to Steele’s wealth and power and a local landmark boasting a third-floor ballroom, a two-story servants wing, solid walnut woodwork and windows requiring single panes so large they had to be imported from France.

But when Carol, a retired radiologist, and her husband, Arthur, a financial planner, looked at the property in December 2010, it was a red-brick shell slated for demolition — yet irresistibly attractive to a couple looking for a project they could tackle with their two adult children. The Shamakians immediately approached the owner and negotiated the purchase. “There’s something about this building that just sucks you in,” marvels Carol, who had never harbored an interest in restoring old homes. “You just want to be a part of it. I call it mansion magic.”

As local residents, the Shamakians were familiar with the house’s history. It retained a semblance of its grandeur for decades after the Steele family vacated it in the early 1900s, first as a property of nearby Lake Erie College, then as an apartment building. Its decline began in 2001, after a fire destroyed the mansard roof and the entire third floor. The house remained vacant for the next decade. Paint peeled, plaster crumbled, floors rotted and chimneys collapsed, taking the eight Italian-marble fireplaces with them. Carol remembers removing 17 dumpsters’ worth of debris from the basement. The job was slowed by the search for chunks of broken marble so the fireplaces could be pieced together. “Mainly, what you were looking for was to see if there were carved surfaces or something that didn’t look like a stone,” Carol says. She brought the pieces home and washed them off in her kitchen sink.

More stomach-turning than cleaning out the basement, then inhabited by what Carol delicately calls “little critters,” was hearing that the servants’ wing collapsed while workers were shoring up the decayed support beams. (Fortunately, no one was inside the wing at the time.) The wing was rebuilt in exacting detail, right down to facing the cinder-block foundation with sandstone from the same quarry that yielded the original. But they added a third floor that, like the second, consists of four guest rooms with in-suite baths. The first floor houses a “gathering room” dominated by an oak bar with a hand-hammered antique-brass counter, where a buffet breakfast is served.

In the main house, masons removed, numbered and reassembled a portion of unsafe foundation under the conservatory. Carpenters then rebuilt the first, second and third floors and removed the walnut staircase, along with sections of wainscoting and sets of interior doors, for restoration. While Mentor architect John D. Stopp generally remained faithful to what appeared to be the main house’s original floor plan, in-suite baths were included in the second-floor bedrooms and an elevator installed in the servants’ stairwell at the back of the front hall. The rebuilt third floor was configured into guest rooms instead of finished as a ballroom.
Carol decorated each guest room to reflect a theme, using reproduction beds and dressers instead of actual antiques. (She wanted the beds to accommodate bigger bodies and modern mattresses and linens and dressers that wouldn’t make guests’ clothing smell musty.) Other items, however, are true antiques that she purchased at auction after poring over a Steele ancestor’s photos and researching late 19th-century furnishings such as pier glasses, hall trees, vanities, occasional chairs, art and vintage photographs. For example, the red-and-green Equestrian Room — actually a two-room suite — sports an antique game table and screen painted with hunt scenes, along with brass bugles and English saddle racks on the walls.

It is, however, the attached private baths that makes Carol most proud. The spacious rooms boast honeycomb-tile floors, subway-tile walls, combination tub/showers, commodes in separate water closets, and freestanding his-and-her vanities in a variety of styles that replicate antique cabinets and tables. 

Guests who want to live like George Steele will want to book Room 204, a suite that is believed to have served as his bedchamber. The handsome accommodations, finished in shades of cream, gold, green and brown, consist of a large bedroom with a reconstructed marble fireplace and long granite-topped wet bar, a sitting room with two walls of windows, and a bath featuring a hydrotherapy tub and double shower. 

Perhaps the most touching part of Steele Mansion’s resurrection story is the affection it inspires. A number of the items gracing its rooms were gifts. A descendant of the Steeles living in Texas provided the mahogany bookcase with burled insets in the yellow-and-gold formal parlor — a piece that occupied the house in the 1870s — while a Painesville man contributed the 1816 marble fireplace in the blue-green gathering room, an architectural artifact from his own historic home nearby. The family of a Pittsburgh couple planning to host their wedding reception at the inn donated the antique camelback sofa in the light-sage-green family parlor. And a local man contributed the Victorian cradle and two dolls in a nearby corner.

“This was the pride and joy of his wife’s,” Carol says as she fingers one doll’s starched white dress. “So he brought it here because he just couldn’t bear the thought of having it go to an antique store — it would be so impersonal — and he knew that I would give it a loving home. That’s what a lot of people understand: that this is a place where things will be [cared for] with pride.”

Carol’s plans for the inn exceed any ideas George Steele may have had for his home. They include opening a gallery showcasing the work of Painesville and Lake County artists in the basement — a space with stonework and brick arches — and wine and bourbon tastings in an alcove under the front porch.
 “I want to treat you the way George Steele would have treated you,” she declares. “You would have had the best. And that’s what we’re going to have.”

Book It
The Steele Mansion opened this spring in Painesville, Ohio, and features 16 rooms, all with private baths, as well as space for events of up to 100 people. Rooms start at $179. Call 440-639-7948 or visit for more information.