Slice of life: A dream house and dream collection in Urbana B&B
By ALISON MARCOTTE
URBANA — It's around noon on a Saturday, and Sylvia Sullivan, a morning person, and her husband, Ernie, have just finished cleaning their bed & breakfast on Green Street near downtown Urbana. After the guests had checked out, they washed and ironed the sheets and vacuumed the rooms. Sylvia finishes dusting the house and, afterward, tells Ernie she gave everything a good clean.
"Thanks, Chicken," he says, using his pet name for Sylvia.
"Bye," she says as she walks out of the room.
"Arrivederci," Ernie says.
Ernie, 56, is a Chicago native, Sylvia, 65, is from Donabate, a small town near Dublin, Ireland. They are polar opposites, Ernie says: Sylvia likes wine, Ernie likes beer; Sylvia likes the house being spotless, Ernie can be a touch untidy. When they first bought the B&B, Sylvia was the talker and Ernie hardly talked to anyone. Now it's the other way around.
"Sylvia brought me out of my shell," he says, adding that he just wants her to be happy.
"And if this is what makes me happy," she says, laughing, "then he's happy."
The three-story Victorian house, a registered historic landmark, has four guest bedrooms, with a carriage house tucked behind the big house. Ernie and Sylvia live on the carriage house's first floor, and the second floor hosts the fifth guest bedroom. The house was originally built in 1895 for Dr. Austin Lindley, who lived and worked in the house until 1922. It sat vacant until 1942, and then various businesses moved in and out until new owners turned it into Lindley House Bed & Breakfast in 1995.
Meanwhile, Ernie and Sylvia lived throughout Europe for 14 years while he was in the military. They constantly collected antiques for a B&B that Sylvia had dreamed of owning since she was a child. She studied the B&B business by reading books, taking online courses, visiting countless B&Bs and talking to owners. In 2003, Ernie retired from the military and they moved back to the U.S., bought Lindley House and began creating a world they had long imagined. In 2006, they renamed it Sylvia's Irish Inn.
Today, Sylvia and Ernie's B&B not only hosts numerous international guests each year, but it also holds the antiques Sylvia and Ernie collected in Italy, Wales, England, Ireland, Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Hungary, Russia and Poland. They fill Sylvia's Irish Inn's foyer, living room, two dining rooms, kitchen, guest bedrooms and carriage house. Sylvia still savors those years of searching.
"It was like a dream," she says. "So every time we bought a piece, the dream was getting closer and closer."
Sylvia first fell in love with Victorian and Edwardian houses as a girl in Dublin, where those house styles were everywhere. She loved that their front doors were all painted different colors — yellow, burgundy, black, green. Each, she imagined, had its own story to tell. Sylvia went to trade school, Dublin Tech, at 14 for her business and interior design degree. At 17, she moved to Great Neck, N.Y., where she met her first husband at 19 and had four children. Sylvia was divorced by the time she met Ernie in 1989.
"She said to me when we met, 'Ernie, you look like Tom Selleck,' " Ernie recalls. "And I'm like, 'You know what, let me check out those glasses. I think they're a little bit weak.' "
They married seven months later. Soon after, Ernie went to the Middle East for six months for the Gulf War, preventing them from having a honeymoon. When Sylvia picked him up in Norfolk, Va., when he returned, Ernie was exhausted.
"I'm so tired," he told Sylvia, "I can't wait to get back to into my bed."
"Honey, we're going to North Carolina," she replied. "I booked us the honeymoon suite at a B&B."
"What the hell is a B&B?"
The B&B was in Asheville, N.C., near the famous Biltmore Estate, which was built by a Gilded Age magnate in the 1890s. The stay was one of the best weekends of their lives.
"You would be good at this," Ernie told Sylvia when their B&B weekend ended. "You could do something like this one day."
So Sylvia's dream became Ernie's dream too. In December 1990, he was sent to Europe, and the collecting began. They lived in Wales, Italy and England and traveled Europe widely, collecting for the B&B they didn't own yet: An 1890 wall clock made by renowned German clockmaker Gustav Becker; two 1920s all-original wardrobes from Ireland and England with Art Deco design; a Celtic wall plaque of St. Martha, who, appropriately, is the patron saint of B&Bs. And much, much more — furniture, dishes, tea sets, cookbooks, dolls, paintings, clocks and pottery.
In a decade, their collection grew to hundreds of items. They could afford them because they were bought slowly and antiques in Europe were inexpensive then. In 2002, Ernie was about to retire, so Sylvia began browsing the Internet for B&Bs in his home state of Illinois, where his sister still lived. She liked Lindley House right off, especially its hardwood floors and gingerbread staircase. Four weeks after they bought the place, their 18 crates of antiques arrived, all intact.
"It was like Christmas," Sylvia says.
They began creating their world. In the dining room went their 100-year-old oak table, the first piece they bought together 25 years ago. Sylvia placed her two 17th-century grandfather clocks in the foyer, although she had a clocksmith turn off their ticking noises so they wouldn't disturb guests. She put her Lladr porcelain figurines in display cases in the living room. She hung 10 ceramic relief sculptures of old English shops in the dining room. On the top of the cabinets went her teapot set that features scenes from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Macbeth." In the dining room, she hung a copy of J.M.W. Turner's 1835 painting, "The Grand Canal, Venice."
Their Italian Capodimonte handmade porcelain flowers went in a guest bedroom. In the third-floor suite went a 19th century Japanese hand-carved dresser they bought in Scotland. Behind the bed headboard, Sylvia hung a 200-year-old iron mirror, a gift from the owner of the Sicilian villa they once rented.
They named the rooms together: Animal Room, English Garden Room, Red Romance Room, Dr. Lindley King Suite and Carriage House Suite. Each was painted a different Victorian color, the hues of red, blue, pink, green and purple used in the Biltmore Estate they had visited on their belated honeymoon. They also fixed pipes, repaired roofs and got rid of rotten wood on the house's exterior. They painted the house's exterior a shamrock green with brown and cream trim.
After six months, the world Sylvia had imagined had become real.
Running the B&B was scary at first, but Sylvia's guests made her feel good — they liked the place, the calm it inspired in them. They also liked her Australian muffins, Peach French toast and French pressed coffee, the strongest coffee in town, Sylvia says proudly. They've had all kinds of guests: scientists, film directors, musicians. They've come from China, Japan, Vietnam, Israel, Uganda, England, Scotland, Italy, the entire globe.
It hasn't been easy. During the recession, Ernie worked 16-hour days driving a forklift and Sylvia took a job with American Greetings redoing the card departments in local stores. But business picked up again. In 2012, they were booked the entire summer.
The guests bring the house to life, but, sometimes, when the B&B is empty, Sylvia just sits down and marvels. Surrounded by her antiques, she is reminded of the people she and Ernie have met, the places they've been, and the memories they've shared gathering up this world they have made over their decades together.
Says Sylvia, "I just like the way the house feels."
Slices of Life
This story was written by a journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class at the University of Illinois. Funding was provided by the Marajen Stevick Foundation. You can buy the book "Slices of Life," a series of stories by writers in Harrington's class. Each story is a short peek into the lives of East Central Illinois residents.