Willoughby House is a mansion-turned-Inn and restaurant.

By JEANNIE EMSER SCHULTZ
Sadly, precious few of the glorious mansions built by scions of industry during America’s Gilded Age remain. The survivors, however, are being reincarnated for uses as varied as B&Bs, museums, retirement homes, academies and eateries.
Wealthy families like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Astors had amassed great fortunes during the Gilded Age (1870-1910) allowing them to emulate European nobility they admired by building lavish mansions. These large, ornate homes in cities like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and New York’s 5th Avenue Millionaires Row were generally centralized in cities.
And, like those cities, Cleveland’s own “Millionaires Row” was downtown Euclid Avenue where men of unparalleled wealth like John D. Rockefeller, Marcus Hanna and Samuel Mather resided. Baedeker’s Travel Guide even dubbed that stretch of Euclid Avenue the “Showplace of America” for its stunning elm-lined sidewalks, opulent mansions and gardens, comparing it to no less than the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Mirroring the East Coast barons, who built “summer mansions” in Newport, RI or Long Island to escape the city heat, Cleveland’s wealthy would also build large summer residences along the lake in Bratenahl and Lakewood.
But the days of the grand estates were soon numbered when both the 1913 federal income tax and 1916 estate tax made colossal manors less financially sustainable, and World War I effected difficulty in hiring servants to run the mansions. An added financial blow came via the Great Depression.
The fatal blow, however, was delivered courtesy of 1950s Urban Development. City planners needed space to introduce freeways, while real estate developers salivated over the prospect of buying estates, and even churches, to demolish them for commercial use, such as in New York City where a Vanderbilt mansion was leveled to construct Bergdorf Goodman department store.
Likewise, Cleveland’s Millionaires Row grand mansions began their march into oblivion, replaced first in the 1920’s by office buildings, department stores and the five new theatres that would comprise Playhouse Square. More mansions would be lost to the 1954 construction of the Innerbelt (with one of the few remaining converted into the University Club, then Myers University and currently the Cleveland Children’s Museum).This scenario was being repeated across the nation as wealthy families eschewed cities for the quiet privacy of the suburbs, leaving their city mansions behind.
What was to become of those grand homes that survived? Some were orphaned, falling into disrepair or repurposed as retirement or mental institutions, schools or museums, like San Francisco’s 1886 Haas-Lilenthal grand Victorian House. Once turned into a home for Jewish immigrants, as a museum today Haas-Lilienthal welcomes visitors can explore what an 1800’s Victorian home looked like inside.
In the 1960s a trend began to sweep the country to create interesting restaurants out of not only the remaining Gilded Age mansions, but other historic or architecturally significant buildings: churches, bus stations, police and fire houses, gas stations and banks.
In Chicago the 1874 DeKoven mansion reopened as the upscale Biggs Restaurant in 1964, before transitioning to Il Mulino eatery and currently “Chicago’s finest cigar emporium, lounge and members club.” In Anaheim, CA diners visiting the 1909 landmark Anaheim White House Waterman mansion come for the food and stay for the supernatural. Supposedly several children and a woman—perhaps former residents—haunt the building with guests reporting voices, moved objects and footsteps above them.
Mansions were transitioned to hotels with restaurants include the famous Dallas estate that became the Toney Mansion at Turtle Creek, and heiress Barbara Hutton’s Newport, RI summer home, Shamrock Cliff House—now the Ocean Cliff which features the sea-view Safari Room Restaurant. (Other famous Newport mansions became museums open for public tours like The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms and Rosecliff—where movies “The Great Gatsby,” “True Lies” and “Amistad” were filmed.) Locally, in Bratenahl, the summer estate of Samuel Mather became the private Shoreby Club in 1993.
Another local mansion to recently open as an inn and restaurant is the former 1902 Willoughby mansion, originally commissioned by Julia French Boyce and designed by renowned Cleveland architect Charles Schweinfurth. The picturesque stone manor’s history included use as an assisted living and a girl’s school before the area’s Neundorfer brothers, Mike and Paul, renovated it to become Willoughby House.
Debuting just this past April as an inn, it now boasts not only seven suites on the second floor–with Julia’s 1902 restaurant on the main floor—but with suites in the property’s converted carriage house as well.
Travelers looking for unique restaurants might opt to visit San Francisco’s Presidio Social Club. The former 1903 military barracks-cum-restaurant offers a magnificent view of the Golden Gate bridge for diners. Visitors to Savannah, GA are urged to check out another interesting eatery… the art deco architecture of the former Greyhound bus terminal that thankfully was saved to become its popular restaurant, The Grey.
Neither have churches been immune to being repurposed as restaurants (although they are deconsecrated before the transition is valid.) Pittsburgh’s Church Brew Works moved into the 1902 St. John The Baptist Church, and New Orleans’ Vessel Restaurant resides in a historic 1914 Lutheran church. But one of the most unusual is literally a cathedral of pizza—John’s at Times Square. John’s calls itself “the most unique pizzeria in the world,”and it is quite likely also the largest. Pizza lovers dine in the former New York 400-seat Gospel Tabernacle Church under its most impressive, colorful stained-glass ceiling!
While the majority of Gilded Age mansions-turned-eateries became white tablecloth restaurants, there are a few exceptions. Mansions in Freeport, ME and Hempstead, Long Island are homes to none other than the most elegant…McDonald’s! Area residents “are lovin’ it” in what the locals have dubbed their “McMansions.”
At Freeport’s 1850’s Gore Mansion and Hempstead’s 1795 heritage home, McDonald’s has preserved the aesthetics of the homes and low-keyed the golden arches signage. Their fast-food aficionados likely never thought they’d one day be standing in the elegance of a historical landmark amid chandeliers, admiring a grand sweeping staircase while saying, “I’ll have fries with that!”