Belmont Hill Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Cedar Rapids marks 20 years

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Step into Belmont Hill and you’re stepping into Cedar Rapids history.

Ken and Shelley Sullens have run a bed-and-breakfast in this historic home tucked into a quiet northwest-side neighborhood since 1997. This year they’re marking 20 years of opening their home to friends and strangers alike, while also marking the much longer history of the house.

Built in 1882, the house was originally owned by brickmaker and mason Philip Wolff. He started a brickyard and crafted hand-molded bricks on the 45-acre property, where his hilltop home overlooked the brickyard as well as a vineyard and beehives. He named the house Belmont Hill because, from a distance, the sloped property was in the shape of a bell. Today it is on the National Register of Historic Places as the Philip A. Wolff House and Carriage House.

True to his profession, Wolff built his home to last, with sturdy brick walls three layers thick. And last it has, for 135 years and counting.

Between 1880 and 1975, only two families lived at Belmont Hill. Until 1975, it had no water, heat or electricity — the last family to live there before them did so without those modern amenities. From 1969 to 1975, the whole house was boarded up and vacant.

If Belmont Hill looks out of place in its neighborhood, there is good reason; the builders who bought the property in 1975 parceled off and sold much of the land as smaller lots, meaning the stately brick house sits in a neighborhood of ranch homes. Sitting on 2 acres, however, the property feels fairly secluded. It still is surrounded by centennial trees, which tower over the house, dropping acorns and walnuts on the roof. Deer and other woodland creatures regularly traipse through the yard.

“It’s a very peaceful oasis. You might not even know you’re in Cedar Rapids,” Shelley said.

When the Sullens moved to Cedar Rapids in 1996 from outside Chicago, Ken put his skills as a furniture stripper to work, refinishing and repairing all the house’s woodwork.

The home, built in an Italianate architecture style, boasts 7 foot tall windows in the sitting room and a 9 1/2 foot tall front door. In Shelley’s office and the kitchen, exposed brick walls show off the original craftsmanship of the home.

To keep to the historic nature of the house while renovating, the Sullens salvaged wood and other materials from houses of the same era that were being demolished at the time on land owned by Coe College.

“It’s a shame to see these old historic homes going to the wrecking ball,” Shelley said. “Unless people buy them and fix them up, that’s what’s going to happen.”

They also rehabilitated the Carriage House, an ivy-blanketed structure just a short stroll from the main house. At some point, a fire had burned the roof off, so they started their renovations from four sturdy brick walls and a dirt floor.

The entire renovation took about a year, and they welcomed their first guests on Sept. 1, 1997. Most guests stay in the Carriage House, which sleeps eight people in three bedrooms.

Though most of their major work went into the Carriage House, there are other touches of the couple’s efforts evident throughout the main house. The dining room fireplace is fronted with marble tiles they added, next to a grandfather clock Ken built from a kit. A mix of antique and new furniture, art and decorations they’ve collected over the years fill the kitchen, dining room, sitting room and piano parlor. Many of the pieces were discarded on the side of the road, where Ken couldn’t resist picking them up. There is joy, he said, in using nails and varnish to coax new life from a cabinet or table that was thrown out with the trash.

“You have to look at it like a hobby. I don’t golf,” he said. “It’s satisfying to have something to show for your efforts.”

Shelley said she likes sitting in her garden arbor when the weather is pleasant and picturing all the history that went before her in the same spot.

“To us, part of the fun of having an old house is to think about what went on within these walls,” she said. “You just think about what conversations went on around the dining room table.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: Belmont Hill Victorian Bed & Breakfast

l Where: 1525 Cherokee Dr. NW, Cedar Rapids

l Details: (319) 366-1343, belmonthill.com

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