Shelley Sullens prides herself on being a welcoming host, providing the complete bed-and-breakfast experience.
Sullens’ Belmont Hill Victorian Bed & Breakfast is located on 2 acres just off F Avenue NW in Cedar Rapids, secluded from the surrounding neighborhood.
“I love how self-contained it is,” Sullens said. “Even 23 years later, I come around that corner, and it’s like a secret garden.”
Guests stay in one of three bedrooms in the historic carriage house that Sullens and her husband, Ken, renovated two decades ago.
Each morning, Sullens serves guests a three-course breakfast in the main house, which was built in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before moving back to Cedar Rapids in 1996 to open their B&B, the Sullenses ran a furniture stripping business in Illinois.
“We had been small business people and self-employed,” Sullens said. “We’d already rehabbed two houses, and we were always helping other people do their houses. We thought, ‘What do our gifts and talents lend themselves to?’ And this seemed to be a good fit.”
It was Shelley’s brother, Jeff Westrom, who helped them find the house and acreage.
She credits her husband for completing much of the construction and renovation in just over a year.
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The couple used locally salvaged doors and moldings to renovate the carriage house, which was basically an empty shell with a dirt floor when they started.
The space had previously been outfitted with horse stalls and then as a garage. Sullens points out the small, low windows that, at one point, were just the right height to pitch manure outside.
The Sullenses named the three carriage house bedrooms after the two families who had owned the home and grounds over the years: the Wolff Room, the Heisel Room and the Belmont Suite. At one point, the home was part of a 45-acre parcel.
Sullens believes much of their business success has been due to their easy, back-and-forth partnership.
“There’s very little overlap between what my husband and I do, but when we put it together it makes the complete package,” Sullens said.
Her husband, for example, handled much of the renovation but doesn’t like to hang wallpaper. She does.
“I run the bed-and-breakfast,” she said. “I do all the yard work. He keeps my equipment running. Ken is very handy.”
Childhood sweethearts, “we’ve known each other since we were 10,” she said. “When the two of us put our heads together, I don’t know if I‘ve ever known anyone who can get as much done.”
Running a bed-and-breakfast on a large acreage is not easy, she said.
“Everywhere you look, there’s work to do,” she said. “But we love it.”
BREAKFAST IS SERVED
At Belmont Hill, guests are served breakfast in the main house’s grand dining room. Vintage wallpaper and antiques abound.
“Mercifully, in the main house no one had ever painted any of the woodwork, which is unheard of,” Sullens said.
Usually composed of three courses, “breakfast is always very elegant. We use the good china and the good crystal, crystal goblets,” Sullens said. “We all have pretty things, but you need to get them out and use them.”
Sullens can cater to dietary restrictions, “as long as we know ahead of time. And for however long someone stays, we try to have something different every day.”
Breakfast in the fall and winter can be served with a roaring fire nearby.
“We do a big fancy Victorian Christmas from Thanksgiving to New Year’s,” she said, with an 11-foot Christmas tree and Christmas dishes providing a festive touch.
“It’s very meaningful, and the guests enjoy it,” Sullens said. “It’s just so beautiful. There’s just something about Christmas in an old house.”
A LEGACY OF HOSTING
Sullens said she inherited much of her love of hosting.
“I feel like I’m the composite of my two grandmothers and my mother,” she said. “My one grandmother was born in 1885. She lived to be almost 100 and was all about pretty dishes. She and my grandfather built a home over on Grande Avenue in 1908, and we never went to Grandma’s house without having a tea party.
“On my mother’s side, my grandma was from the South, and she was a wonderful cook and was always out in her yard. She was the gardener.”
At breakfast, many of the dishes and glasses are family heirlooms.
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“I have my mother’s dishes, Ken’s mother’s dishes and goblets from my grandmother,” Sullens said. “We do a gourmet French toast, and for that, I saute apples and use my great-grandmother’s cast iron pan. It’s all meaningful to me.”
She speaks lovingly of her late mother, who died more than 30 years ago.
“She was the best person I ever knew,” Sullens said. “I never saw her do anything less than her absolute best. So I have these three lovely women — I feel like I’m a composite of them. I feel like this whole place is their legacy, and I’m just a steward of it for the time being.”
THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS
Over the past two decades, the couple have seen many changes in the bed-and-breakfast business.
When they first opened in 1997, guests found out about the B&B through different guidebooks, and every reservation came in over the phone. Now, with reservations made online, “we don’t have to answer the phone all the time anymore.”
The advent of GPS has helped guests find the B&B more easily. Located in a true pocket neighborhood, “we’re the only ones in the city on Cherokee Drive.”
She has noticed, too, that guests in recent years are more spontaneous in planning and making reservations. In the past, “people used to book more in advance,” she said.
“We get a lot of guests from out of state who are coming for work or an area concert,” she said. “There’s just something about this whole property that has a very disconnected feel, and people come here to disconnect.”
Living close to extended family and their son, Kristopher, Shelley and Ken Sullens enjoy being a part of their guests’ family celebrations.
“They come for their weddings, anniversaries, birthdays,” she said. “People come to the area for graduations and family reunions, meaningful times in their life. They’re very appreciative and that’s why we keep doing it. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to make a living.”
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