Laurie Hostetler opened the Kerr House 25 years ago.
GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio - Take a stroll through the heart of this Maumee River village today, and it's not quite so hard to imagine how a luxury health retreat might fit into the landscape.
But when Laurie Hostetler opened the Kerr House back in 1980, Grand Rapids was just beginning to shake its image as a tough old canal town.
Ms. Hostetler, needless to say, had her share of skeptics.
"The fact that we were trying to target tourism was a really good idea, but we hadn't seen it yet," recalled Wood County Commissioner Jim Carter, who was mayor of Grand Rapids at the time.
Kate Harvie of New York City receives a facial from Jan Archambeau at the Kerr House.
Ms. Hostetler's ambitious renovation of a neglected, dilapidated Victorian mansion came at the beginning of what would be a rebirth of the village's neglected, dilapidated downtown. And not even she realized the Kerr House would quickly attract people from across the country who were seeking relief from overstressed lives and searching for ways to create healthier lifestyles.
"She thought it was a great idea, and she was right," Mr. Carter said. "I just didn't know. I thought it might possibly do something for a few years."
A few years have turned into 25, and Ms. Hostetler has no intention of closing the ornate wooden doors of her successful venture. "It's really been a pleasure. It's a tri-umph," Ms. Hostetler said during a conversation in one of the antique-filled parlors in the 10,000-square-foot brick house.
To her, the success of the Kerr House is measured simply in the number of lives she's touched, the number of people who are happier and healthier because of the Kerr House.
Being located in a small, out-of-the-way Midwestern town hasn't kept people away.
"They have to work to get here, but once they're here, I think the uniqueness of the area is worth it," she said. "Some of them have never seen cornfields."
Grand Rapids wasn't always such a quaint destination.
Ms. Hostetler's decision to restore the Kerr House occurred at the same time Don and Audrey Enteman were leading the charge to revitalize buildings in the village's downtown, but Ms. Hostetler said the timing was coincidental.
A yoga instructor who lives in Perrysburg, she said she came upon the rundown house one day by accident, knocked on the door, and found herself talking with Clifton "Red" Kerr, the owner and grandson of B.F. and Ann Kerr who had the home built in 1880.
"I fell in love with the building and the feeling in the house," she recalled. "I thought the feeling in the house was so extraordinary."
She bought the house in 1977 and spent the next few years bringing it back to life and dreaming up an ahead-of-its-time health retreat that would take a holistic approach to nutrition, exercise, and attitude.
Guests like Dena Kahle, a real estate agent from Clarion, Pa., say a few days at the Kerr House can be life-changing.
"I was there for five days and it was beyond what I was looking for," said Mrs. Kahle, 50, who made her visit to the Kerr House last month. "I feel like I experienced a healing there - mentally, emotionally, and physically."
The Kerr House serves only natural foods, nothing processed. Guests are treated to breakfast in bed, elegant dinners in the dining room, and treatments that range from the traditional, like manicures and facials, to the less traditional: hot stone therapy massage, reflexology, and healing touch.
During the three and five-night programs offered at the Kerr House, guests go out for a ride on the canal boat at Providence Metropark, take walks along the river, and get the opportunity to browse the antique shops along Front Street.
"People do enjoy the community," Ms. Hostetler said. "It hasn't brought customers in [to the Kerr House] but I think it's an asset. It is the neatest little town."
Dave LaRoe, who came to Grand Rapids in 1975 to open an ice cream shop, now runs LaRoe's Restaurant. He said he enjoys chatting with women bound for the Kerr House who stop by his restaurant for what he jokingly calls their "last supper."
"Back then it was something to think of a health spa in Grand Rapids," he said. "If I hadn't gotten to know Laurie like I have, maybe I'd be skeptical about it, but there's something about her, her personality, her drive. She had what it would take to keep that business thriving."
Michelle Kleist, executive director of Destination Spa Group, an association of destination spa owners, said the Kerr House, which accommodates just five to eight overnight guests, is the smallest health retreat she knows of. Its secret for success is obvious to any visitor.
"I think the biggest reason is Laurie herself. She puts so much into it and has through that whole time frame," Ms. Kleist said. "She teaches the classes. She's very involved with all of her staff. It's her passion, and she puts a lot of energy and effort into it."
Over the years, the Kerr House has hosted numerous guests in the rich-and-famous category, but Ms. Hostetler declines to name them, saying even her staff and guests are not informed when a VIP is in their midst.
"Everyone who comes is equally important. I don't care if it's the Queen of England," she said.
Ms. Hostetler shies away from discussing the financial side of the business. It's clear the operation is a labor of love, one that could have failed if not for her personal commitment.
Her late husband, Dave, supported her idea from the beginning but died from cancer just three years after the Kerr House opened. She said she didn't allow that to set her back. Instead, she felt fortunate to have the Kerr House beckoning her to get up every morning and take care of what needed to be done.
"It's been a bull-headed attitude I've had that I'm just going to bulldoze through anyway," she said with a laugh.
Of the Hostetlers' five children, two of their daughters worked for a time at the Kerr House and their late son, Dean, was the chef at the Kerr House. Ms. Hostetler said she does not see any of her children carrying on the business, but she's not talking of retiring anyway.
"I really love what I do. I love the people who come here. I love my staff. I love the results of the program," she said. "I think the Kerr House has served a fantastic purpose.
"I think that from the very beginning the Kerr House has been an amazing success, but the finances have often been difficult because the overhead is so high," she said, adding "For what it accomplishes it has been a tremendous success."
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