Current owner Tim Mussard lights up a cigar in front of his 1870 mansion in Berea, Ohio. Mr. Mussard and his wife, both singers, intend to hold concerts in the downtown mansion. the plain dealer The Berea mansion, which was nearly destroyed by fire, features brick and stonework.
Scott Shaw / AP Enlarge
BEREA, Ohio - The fiancee wondered whether the diamond was real.
As the story goes, George Wrongful Whitney answered his future wife by carving his initials in a window with the ring.
One hundred and thirty-seven years after the sandstone tycoon finished perhaps Berea's grandest mansion, the initials and the window survive. So does his signature, etched into a door.
Whitney's Italianate mansion leads a wealth of houses from the 1800s that still testify to Berea's years of supremacy in stone.
"The home remains a jewel," local historian Patricia M. Mote writes in the recent book Images of America: Berea.
A former owner overcame a nearly ruinous fire in 1991 and meticulously restored the mansion. Now new arrivals face the challenges of managing the 4,800-square-foot home.
"We wanted to get the exercise," says Annie Chon-Mussard.
"And make this house our hobby," says Tim Mussard.
The Mussards are singers who plan concerts in the downtown mansion, which boasts 12-foot ceilings and resonant wood floors.
"The acoustics are fabulous!" Ms. Mussard says.
The Mussards envision concerts and receptions for the popular Bach festival of nearby Baldwin-Wallace College.
Mr. Mussard teaches vocal music at Baldwin-Wallace. Ms. Mussard teaches privately and is on leave from running the Trader Joe's store in Woodmere to tend to their month-old son, Joshua.
Perhaps the parents of George Wrongful Whitney wanted him to be competitive. They named his brother George Rightful Whitney.
The Wrongful one became Berea's postmaster and helped the town furnish material for the Kremlin's walls and grindstones around the world.
An unconfirmed tale has Whitney living next door with the Baldwins, Berea's oldest stone clan, during the eight years it took to raise his mansion. In perhaps a friendly rivalry, he used a similar floor plan to the Baldwins' but with much bigger dimensions. He also made his walls three bricks thick.
Besides the finished spaces, the house has an unfinished basement, third floor, and cupola. Whitney reportedly felled some tall trees so he could stand in the cupola and watch his quarrymen work.
His luxuries included parquet floors, speaking tubes, marble fireplaces, and winter and summer kitchens.
For reasons unknown, Whitney lived there only three years. The home turned over many times before Greg Katona bought it in 1991 for $190,000. Soon a fire, apparently touched off by restoration crews, destroyed the roof and wreaked havoc below.
Mr. Katona persevered. He imported ornate chandeliers and cloth wallcoverings. He made tiles and put together a shower bigger than most people's bathrooms.
Mr. Katona sold the place this year for $660,000. He could not be reached for comment, and the Mussards aren't sure exactly which of the home's current features are original, duplicates, or period work.
The main rooms feature elaborate plaster wainscoting in imitation of wood. Both kitchens have tin ceilings. The front porch is screened by giant rhododendrons. The 1-acre grounds border Mill Stream Run Reservation and host a two-story carriage house.
The Mussards mostly have tried to make the place livable and affordable. They installed an anthracite boiler and insulated some 200 feet of pipes.
Tim grew up in a Victorian mansion in Delaware, Ohio, then survived decades on Los Angeles' freeways. Now he likes treading the sidewalks of a historic downtown.
"It's a real pleasure being a block away from work and coming home to that beautiful house," he said.