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Home Tour: Ghosts and grandeur at 1874 B&B

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-04 05:00:25-05

VEVAY, Ind. -- If you plan to stay in the 1874 Schenck Mansion bed and breakfast in Vevay, be sure you "ain’t afraid of no ghosts."

They exist, said innkeeper Michelle Thompson, but they’re a friendly bunch. A group of seven paranormal investigators encountered at least two female ghosts in the mansion – a 12,000-square-foot, 35-room house that Thompson describes as “this ‘Addams Family’ place up on the hill” – when they spent a day there in 2011. And a number of male guests have reported being kissed lightly on the cheek by a ghost known as “Victorian Lady in White.”

Thompson said she occasionally hears doors open and shut when she’s the only person in the house. The day we toured the mansion, she said that a ghost had been turning down the thermostat a lot lately.

“We do have friendly spirits, four or five,” Thompson said. “One gets a little frisky with the guys. She likes to kiss them. There are some crazy stories told.”

These stories are frequent conversation starters among her bed and breakfast guests, as are the mansion’s grandeur and history.

The 141-year-old Second Empire-style mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic places, was designed by Cincinnati architect George P. Humphries for the family of steamboat captain Benjamin Franklin Schenck.

The most striking feature of the brick mansion is its four-story tower and widow’s watch attic with three round dormer windows. The story goes that Schenck requested the windows so his wife, Celestine, and daughters Justine and Eugenia, could see his steamboat come and go on the Ohio River.

Unfortunately for them, these lookout activities were short-lived. Capt. Schenck died of tuberculosis two years after moving into his mansion, and the family left it mostly vacant for decades.

The first of a couple of revivals occurred in 1945 when Clarence Wiseman bought the mansion, built a quarter-mile equestrian track in the front yard and established the Switzerland County Saddle Club. The house was used as a clubhouse into the 1970s.

Its second revival took place in 1998-99 when Jerry and Lisa Fisher bought and restored the mansion to its original grandeur. The Fishers’ undertaking was immense as the house had been damaged badly by a leaky roof and lack of regular maintenance, yet they opened it as a bed and breakfast in 2000.

The house’s poor condition confronted the Fishers upon entering the grand foyer. A gaping hole in the ceiling near the staircase was letting the outside in.

When Jerry Fisher walked in, Thompson said, he “had snow on the top of his head that was coming in through the roof.”

That was then. The “now” part of the story is that the mansion is what it was in 1874: a symbol of wealth and culture unsurpassed by many Midwestern bed and breakfasts inns.

Take the tour

Many visitors are surprised by the Schenck Mansion’s grandness when they spot it after driving through the little town of Vevay, Thompson said. When they come through the big iron gate next to the vineyard at the property’s lowest point, the experience begins.

“You stop at that gate, and it gets you. Most people say ‘Is this the house?’ They don’t expect it to be like this, you know. We’re not on the main street, and we have all this acreage (nine) here,” Thompson said.

Besides the mansion’s tall tower, its facade is characterized by a mansard, or “French” roof, prominent dormer windows, elaborate window treatments, tin trim and various Italianate features. It has four porches, seven balconies, eight chimneys and its original slate, albeit repaired, roof.

The grounds include a small vineyard – Vevay is part of one of America’s first wine-producing regions – a water garden and a gazebo, all added by the Fishers. Its part of what makes Schenck Mansion such a popular site for weddings, said Thompson, former manager of a similar historic site in Aurora, the 150-acre Veraestau homestead settled in 1810.

There are seven large bedrooms in Schenck Mansion, five of which can be rented for between $125 and $250 a night. Guests also have access to the mansion’s first-floor parlors and formal dining room. All sleeping and living rooms are carpeted in different Scottish wool patterns, as they would have been as a sign of wealth and comfort in the 1870s.

The guest entrance is around the corner from the front door. To the left of the hallway is the formal dining room, which features a 15-foot table reproduced by Kindel Furniture of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Above it hangs a three-tiered, gas-style reproduction chandelier. Among the artwork in the dining room is a portrait of Capt. Schenk, whose flat-boater father, Ulysses Schenck, was known as “The Hay King.”

Down the hall and past the butler’s pantry off the dining room is a modern kitchen where Thompson and her daughter prepare meals and plate them on a 30-square-foot island. The kitchen’s Greenville, Michigan-made appliances are nickel plated and based on stoves dating back to 1925.

On the opposite side of the dining room are two parlors separated by pocket doors and a game room, which occupies the first floor of the tower and features a large-screen television and modern lounge seating. The decor in the women’s and gentlemen’s parlors sitting rooms is more historically correct. The floor also has two powder rooms.

Off a center hallway that connects the front and back of the house is the only first-floor bedroom, the Clarence Wiseman Room, a 400-square-foot space that once served as a music room. It has a Philadelphia Empire king-size tester bed, tall windows that face the water garden and gazebo, a sitting porch and private entrance.

Its bathroom includes a shower/bathtub that is encased in walnut and lined in copper. A vintage style high-low water closet and copper-lined vanity sink compliment the historic feel of the room.

A long, newly painted veranda overlooking the backyard water garden is a favorite place for guests to read, drink and smoke, Thompson said.

Carpenters rebuilt the veranda using the original architectural drawings and historic photographs. The creamy yellow and soft purple ceramic paint applied to the railing blends with the deck’s light green bead board ceiling.

Thompson and her daughter live on the third floor but maintaining the bed and breakfast business and the mansion allow little time for them to enjoy it on many days. She said she has learned to schedule time off to avoid the burnout she said plagued several previous innkeepers.

“I’ve never had a 9-to-5 job, so I understand the long hours,” Thompson said. “You have to block off time to recover” and use the mansion as your home.

Bed and breakfast fans, she said, seem to love everything about the Schenck House – even its ghosts.

“The biggest complaint is that the TVs are too small,” Thompson said, “but that’s because the rooms are so big.”