At this elegant historical restoration, the focus is on local history and locally sourced food.
Area residents Rhonda and Richard Thompson already had dedicated themselves to preserving the community’s heritage and farmland when the Allen House became available. Realizing the architectural importance of the house, the significant contributions of the Allen family to the field of medicine and the architectural genius of the builder, Thompson decided to take the enormous step to save the house for posterity. The Richard and Rhonda Thompson Foundation was created to restore historic buildings and the Allen House selected as a primary project.
The Thompsons decided the house needed a purpose beyond that of a museum. Wishing to preserve the home’s historic heritage, they meticulously restored its rooms—mixing in only enough modern furnishings to allow for a guest’s comfortable stay. They then expanded its potential use by adding a kitchen, conference and banquet room, tavern and gardens.
Today, the pair can often be found working on the latest Puzzle Room challenge or mingling with guests during a Friday evening Tavern night.
Aundréa Cika Heschmeyer is responsible for all of the day-to-day operations of the historic Peter Allen Inn. Heschmeyer came to PAI before it opened in January 2016 and has been a guiding force behind creating its mission and direction as the region’s most elegant destination retreat in the bucolic farmlands of upper Trumbull County. Previously, Heschmeyer was director of the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley in Youngstown. Prior to that, she spent her early career as a journalist on television, for newspapers and as a magazine editor in multiple markets. Later, she was then was in public and media relations consulting, independently and for firms in Washington, DC, and Ohio. Her volunteer work is highlighted in her experience in building PolishYoungstown, the nonprofit of which she is still Executive Director.
This is Karen Schubert for the Power of the Arts and I’m here in the lovely parlor at the Peter Allen Inn with owner Richard Thompson and general manager, Aundréa Cika Heschmeyer. Thank you both for taking the time to talk to me today.
This place is stunning. I’ve heard so much about it, and I’m really glad to have the opportunity to come and see it for myself, and to taste the lovely lunch that I just had. So if you’ll tell me, Dick, when do you remember this place entering your imagination?
Richard Thompson: Well, that goes way back– probably the early ‘70s? And that is because when my wife and I were dating, we actually had come out here for lunch. The previous owner, this was her home, and she would open it on the weekends for public events. On a Sunday afternoon she served family-style lunches.
We actually had heard about the place, didn’t know where it was, and drove to Kinsman and found it. And little did we know one day we’d end up with it as a project. The lady, her place of business, was the little coffee shop south of town, the Times Square Restaurant. So it is really remarkable how it ended up.
KS: That’s a wonderful story. How long have you been here Aundréa?
AH: I came on board in January of ’16, right before the facility was ready to open to the public.
KS: What was that process like? It strikes me, and I just don’t know much of what I’m looking at, but I perceive that you are paying attention to the historical veracity, you’re bringing in period pieces, and being true to this— look at this beautiful woodwork in here, and this gorgeous clock— but also there’s the challenge of the contemporary building codes, sprinkler system, the lighting, the ADA accessibility, and things like that. So what was the process like for you to restore it and open to the public in this way?
RT: As you can imagine, it was very complex. We actually acquired the house in 2008, and spent a number of years trying to decide what we would do with it. We thought it was so important, it is architecturally certainly important, not only to Kinsman but to the Western Reserve. And it stands as one of the finer examples of Federal architecture.
Our fear was that it was a property that was vacant, if you will, let me say it like that. Our fear was that somebody could buy it, because it was so significant, and dismantle it and take it away. And so we strongly believed that it belonged to Kinsman, and were dedicated to saving it for Kinsman.
Once we decided, and there were many suggestions from the community, we had reached out and said, What do you think would work? A number of those I knew wouldn’t work, those suggestions, but we had come on the idea of an event center. And it was only during the construction that we decided, because of the bedrooms that were already in place, that we really didn’t have plans for, that we decided that our business model could include a small bed and breakfast component. And so we created private baths to support each one of those bedrooms.
And we started construction in, I want to say, 2013, it could have been ’14. It was a three year process. And as you implied, there were lots and lots of details. We were quite sensitive to two things: number one, the architectural integrity of the building. We wanted to keep it as exacting as it was built in 1821 as we could, but, we were not purists in the sense that we were creating a museum. And to that point, it had to live in today, with today’s building codes, the ADA requirements. It is sprinkled, if you noticed that. And so we wanted it to be comfortable. Some people would take exception to that, but that was our philosophy.
KS: It’s such a remarkable story, Dr. Allen coming out in 1808. It’s hard for us to conceptualize what Ohio was like in those days. Were there still the big white pines? I don’t even know. And he’s bringing herbs and leeches [Laughter].
So part of what you’re doing here, it occurred to me as I was eating this lovely winter salad that has all the fresh greens, subtle tastes and the really delicious tomato bisque, but the salad had dandelion greens in it. So you’re also, besides— I imagine in Dr. Allen’s time, pushing the boundaries meant something meant something entirely different, whereas today, just having food on real plates, food that’s grown locally, and not over-chemicaled, is so desired and so novel with all of those benefits as well.
So how are you tapping into trends and traditions, maybe talk about that kind of boundary for you. Talked about the building itself but how about your programming? your menu and—
AH: The programming, we’ve tried to—we’re believers that this beautiful facility is a work of art unto itself. So wouldn’t you enjoy bringing art and highlighting it here? In a community that has to travel, otherwise, to get such a thing. That was one of the reasons we’ve focused on bringing arts to this community, through, to use our venue, the opera, Shakespeare next year, art shows. We’re very excited about, what we’re most excited about is the response that you get from it. Dick brought up a good point earlier about part of the joy of going to Stambaugh Auditorium is Stambaugh Auditorium, no matter who’s on the stage.
KS: That’s right.
AH: And we feel that way about The Allen House, that it’s so beautiful. And the expansion complemented it. And so now what we’re trying to do to create programming that complements it, as well.
KS: And where do those programs take place? The music, the opera?
AH: Where you had lunch, in Heritage Hall, as well as now we have the Grand Canopy, that allows us to have a larger facility, next summer.
KS: How far to people travel to come?
AH: We are excited because there are situations where we’ve had beer dinners and things that we consider more “local,” so Howland or Youngstown or Chardon. We’ve had people come from as far away as Cleveland for a lot of our programming. Our opera, we had a whole table from Metro Cleveland, because they said they couldn’t resist the venue, and the intimacy, knowing full well the talent that Opera Western Reserve puts together. They said they had to come and see it in such an intimate level. Even though they had tickets for the show down there at Stambaugh.
KS: Besides the performing arts, you have original paintings? Is there a story about the paintings?
AH: Well the featured artist at the Peter Allen is Thomas McNickle because of his pastoral focus at the time. So we have beautiful works of his, throughout. Otherwise, we bring in artists, via our art show. We’re creating a space as part of the house for a changing gallery. So that we can feature people, both local and otherwise.
KS: And the culinary arts? Who creates the menu?
AH: Well, Dick and I would love to think we have some input with our chef [Laughter], but you know, chefs nowadays, they love to drive the train. We sit and have lunch and talk about, well, I would tweak this, I would tweak that.
We’re very blessed because we’re hiring people who believe in the farm-and-table concept, as well. So they’re out meeting our local farmers, talking about what is the highlight, not just of the season, which they might know, but of this particular area. We have a couple of local producers, that the majority of their work is done in Cleveland, because, you know, the Cleveland food scene is growing every year, and we’re able to tap into that and bring some of that to the Valley audience.
KS: So this facility is an economic driver in the area as well, right? You’re hiring the kitchen staff, floral— Do you do your do your floral arranging here? Do you grow your flowers?
AH: We do not grow the flowers here currently. That’s a 2018-19 project.
KS: I saw the herb garden. Interior and landscape design, and your period antique furniture? Is some of it—?
RT: It is. We tried to finish it with pieces. They aren’t necessarily all antiques. but they’re period correct, in our estimation.
AH: Tell them about your trip to Kittinger.
RT: We’re fond of Williamsburg, and Williamsburg used a license that Kittinger Furniture Company to produce their line of furniture. And the Kittinger Furniture Company, I thought, went out of business in 1992, which they did, except they sold the engineering, the drawings, the designs, to one of their employees who continued to operate. So, I fast-forward and in a magazine, after visiting Williamsburg, I was trying to locate Kittinger people again and there was an ad in a magazine that said, and it was a cute word, but what it mean was pre-owned Kittinger Furniture, The Elmwood Company. So I’m on the hunt and I call and it’s a California number. The gentleman actually has a warehouse in Buffalo, New York, where they repurchased Kittinger furniture specifically, and then refurbish that, or reupholstered them, or whatever, and then they have it online.
And then, and I don’t know how I found out, but the furniture factory, itself, had reopened in Buffalo, New York. So we made a trip one day, first to the warehouse that had the wooden pieces, like that chest is pre-owned. All these chairs are brand new. So then we looked at what they had. Went with a laundry list. It was a lot of fun: I’ll take that, I’ll take that.
So then we went to the factory and toured that, and said this is what we like. And so of course these were their fabrics, or did we give them fabrics? I think we actually picked out the fabrics here to have them shipped. And so we had a decorator involved that coordinated the draperies and all this stuff. So anyways, the Kittinger Furniture thing, it sounds simple now, but it was anything but simple, to even locate them. But we have made a contact. And so for the most part, it has been furnished with Kittinger Furniture.
AH: So it was a pursuit of furniture, not just of the period, but of the period of the region, and the timing. So we tease people, on a Friday they say, oh they’d like to do a tour of the home, can we bring our glass of wine with us. I always laugh because that beautiful daffodil couch you sit upon. Oh, you with your chardonnay, absolutely. The merlot has to stay on the table [Laughter].
RT: We haven’t had–
AH: Not that I’m aware of. [Knocking wood] We don’t want to wish that upon ourselves.
KS: So I can also see elements of sustainability infrastructure, as well. The permeable pavers, as I mentioned the dandelion greens, the herb gardens. Do you have an eye toward those kinds of things?
RT: I give you high mark for recognizing the pavers. And there was thought to that whole thing. And that’s worked out. It’s not as easy to maintain that as it is a blacktop drive, but it certainly has other attributes that we appreciate.
Sustainability—you know—I want to go back and extend a point that Audréa made and that is that we really are trying to celebrate local agriculture. I pride myself as being a farmer in one of my careers, and we’re raising the beef that is being served here. The Red Basket, a nice farm just south of us downtown, that Aundréa mentioned, a good deal of their work goes to the Cleveland area. We’re very fortunate to have them here and we collaborate, certainly the greens that you ate today came from there. And we have another farm that raises grassfed animals. And they’re a supplier. And they’re all right here. And we think that’s pretty neat. We have the chef’s garden out there that we’re starting to use, and we will use it more. The idea is to have a cutting garden on site. We do have a small one, and we do cut some. But for the events we need—
AH: The berry bushes and the beehives– I’ve been pushed back at least until ’19 [Laughter].
KS: But there is a little bit of an irony in it, isn’t there, just coming full circle. That now we really value the local, instead of having a big bunch of factory-made stuff in some deep freezer, it’s the locally grown meat and vegetables, as fresh as they can be. I can hear my grandparents saying, Oh! Milk in a bottle! Isn’t that novel! [Laughter] Who ever thought of that?
RT: I would challenge anybody if they were to sample the pork or the beef they would say, wow, this is pretty good.
KS: And do you find people—I think we underestimate how distorted we’ve had to make the system in order to keep prices low. You can’t do that with locally grown livestock, vegetables and fruits. Do you find that people in this area struggle some with your prices? How do you weigh in on that?
RT: We’re certainly at a price point that’s different. But we’re sensitive to it. Because we always believe that we want to be a facility that the locals would come to and feel comfortable with. And we’re bringing people in from Cleveland or Canfield or Liberty, maybe it’s not so much of an issue. I’m not trying to suggest that folks out here don’t—
AH: Have the means—
RT: Not suggesting that at all. We are sensitive to that. But what we do— there is a higher price point of what the cost is. The farm outside the town that we get all our vegetables and greens from, we could probably go to the local grocery store and get it cheaper, but we choose to get it down there because it’s fresh.
KS: And you’re growing your own economy, rather than the economy of someplace out West. So there’s an investment component where that money comes back around, but that’s not necessarily visible.
AH: We also try to balance the menu. In the case of the restaurant piece, we try to balance the menu. So there is an option within the menu. So that if you come and you’re more budget-minded, there is an opportunity. So you’re not shut-out with what might otherwise might be considered special-event only.
RT: That’s a good way to say it.
KS: I’m sure a lot of people in the area pass these gorgeous, empty, historic gems, and think, Oh, I really want to buy that! I confess that I have a tiny fantasy of my own about opening up a literary center in one of our empty mansions. So what would you say to people like me who are thinking about that? What are some concrete steps in thinking rationally about moving forward with such a project?
RT: I think—and I kind of associate a home like that as in the country. So you have to be willing to understand there’s a difference between rural living and suburban living. We think it’s very nice out here with the open vistas and everything. Kinsman specifically, is blessed with a number of historic homes of significance. But I think the other thing is, living in the country and living in an old house is not for everybody.
Now this is an old house but it’s been brought up to current standards, if you will. So there’s no drafts. The floors are level. The walls are straight. But it didn’t start out that way. So just to move into a house, even though you could move into it, it might not be as comfortable as you had in the city. But there’s a certain elegance, as far as I’m concerned.
AH: If you were to take a property, where would you start? If you had to say, here’s the first three steps you would do for someone else taking a property? There are some beautiful Northside mansions. Loads of beautiful opportunity on the Northside of Youngstown. Before you were to purchase, what would you do? I think with your experience—this isn’t the first project Dick’s done. This is what, third, in Kinsman?
RT: Certainly, third or fourth. I’m not sure about down in Youngstown, because probably already have some of these features. But out here, utilities are everything. Is it, can you afford, can you heat the place? If you get these big old rambling houses and they aren’t insulated, and they have inefficient heat sources, it’s pretty expensive. So we took great pains in making this as energy efficient as we could, because we believe that one day, when I’m not here to support this thing, somebody’s got to make this work. And quite honestly, we’ve done a nice job at that.
KS: I see the windows, the windows are new and energy efficient. But they have that beautiful, thick glass.
RT: No, they’re not new.
KS: They’re not new!
RT: That’s why you see that nice glass. Those are the 1821 windows.
KS: Oh my gosh! But then on the outside, they’re stormed? How did you do it?
RT: Well, I actually went to a seminar years ago in Baltimore, and there was a gentleman there who said don’t throw your old windows away. Because air infiltration is 70% of your heat loss. And so what you don’t see is that right around the perimeter, the edge of this window, we put it on edge and we ran it over a saw and put a groove in it and put a gasket in there, and so these locks are not for security purposes, they’re to engage that gasket. So there’s a silicone bulb gasket all around there. And we’ve stopped all air infiltration. Then we went on the outside and we had storm windows built. And the bar that you don’t see is lined up here so you don’t notice it.
Then whatever heat loss between the single pain glass, was corrected that way. But we actually, that’s a sash, a lower sash and an upper sash, we actually shipped them out to the same gentleman. I remembered his name, we found him, and he actually put them in steam boxes, got all the glazing off the window glass, lifted the glass out, repaired the frames as needed, and then painted them all, put the glass back in, reglazed everything, so if there was any air infiltration with bad glazing, it was corrected. And then we got them back.
KS: Wow, that’s incredible. RT: Yeah. But if you look at the house, the windows are an important characteristic. Everybody comments about that.
KS: They’re really beautiful, and I think they speak to what must have been the great challenge of building a house like this in the first place, where you’re really bringing in materials, with a pretty rough infrastructure.
RT: Well, you’ve said that right. And we often will stop whatever we’re doing and say, How did they even do this? So that chimney, there are five fireboxes on that chimney, and that chimney starts in the basement and it’s just a stack of bricks until it gets to the attic. And so the question is, where did they get those bricks? Well they probably made them right under that tree out there. And the architectural prize of the entire house is the front façade. If you’ve not seen it, then drive up before you leave. (It’s raining out now.) And take a peek. And you look at that and you say, How did they accomplish that in 1821! It’s a big deal.
KS: And the idea that a doctor would come out to the frontier with these kinds of ideas, right? When he could have stayed in a pretty well developed city.
RT: He was in Connecticut, I want to say it was New London. The question we have is, did he come with money? Or did he make his money here? We can’t imagine he made it on the frontier. Because there wasn’t a lot of money out here. But clearly Mr. Kinsman coaxed him out here some way. Mr. Kinsman arrived in 1799, couple trips before he brought his family in 1801. And in 1808 the good doctor arrives. But he had to be invited and coaxed.[Laughter]
KS: Your family’s probably been here awhile. I understand my family was in this area in 1803, so there’s a family story that one of the ancestors used to walk a cow up the path and every now and then one cow wouldn’t come back, and that was the cost of business, there were still a lot of Native Americans. My uncle used to collect arrowheads.
RT: There were tribes here through the early 1800s and even today one of the activities out here is there’s a number of people roaming the fields once we plowed, looking for arrowheads. There are many, many artifacts found.
KS: So are you following—as we speak the Congress is debating a tax overhaul and part of that tax overhaul will eliminate the Historic Tax Credit. Do you have any thoughts about that?
RT: I do. It’s interesting you mention that. We’re working on another project and it is, at least, the funding plan includes Historic Tax Credits. And the consultant has already said, Dick, are you aware this has been taken off the table? I just got an email saying it’s been put back in, in the Senate version. So that, hopefully, will stay, because, quite honestly, there are many, many projects that get financed that way, and without that, they just won’t get done.
KS: Especially in an area like ours where there isn’t a lot of market pressure, that tax credit is really going to give projects a leg up.
RT: We did not use that vehicle here on this house. So it wouldn’t have made any difference here. Although we’re on the National Register, we were under no restrictions. I don’t want to say we could do what we wanted, but we could do what we wanted. [Laughter]
KS: You have done a lovely job. I thank you and I commend you and wish you much success.
RT: Well thank you. It’s interesting, what we said we wanted to give it a purpose, clearly the purpose has been well received, the idea of bringing arts to Kinsman. We had a dinner theater, the very first one we had, and then we had a smaller program, opera, and one lady came up to us at the close of it with tears in her eyes and said, I just can’t thank you enough.
KS: That is so lovely. I thank you so very much for your time today.
RT: You’re quite welcome.