Work continues at the village-owned mansion.
Nestled in the rolling hills of Licking County, Granville’s historic Bryn Du Mansion buzzes with vitality on a cloudy Saturday morning as youth soccer teams warm up on the east great lawn. Behind the mansion, a catering company unloads a truck full of serving equipment for a wedding being held on the back lawn, as a photographer roams the terraced garden nearby, searching for the perfect backdrop. Bridesmaids chatter and sip prenuptial mimosas in the main house, as groomsmen laugh and joke outside.
With a storied past as an elaborate home that includes several outbuildings and lush surroundings, the Bryn Du estate has become a popular spot for an abundance of activities since the Village of Granville purchased the property in 2002 and began renovations on it.
“You know, this isn’t just like an event center that somebody built last week,” says Bryn Du executive director Bruce Cramer, who was hired in 2005, three years after Granville purchased the property. “So we have to make sure that we do things thinking about the next hundred years.”
“We’re very sensitive to the historical nature of the facility,” says Bryn Du Commission president Candi Moore. “It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, so anything we do out here in terms of renovation, we want it to be really top-notch and we want it to add to the appearance, not really detract from it.”
Even prior to the village purchasing the property in 2002, the stories of Bryn Du and the former owners of the estate, as well as the hallowed property surrounding it, abounded.
Originally owned by Granville settler and abolitionist Joseph Linnell, historians have reported that the property was a stopping place along the Underground Railroad in the early 1830s. Former slaves who were escaping the south stopped by Linnell’s farmhouse, which provided protection during their journey to northern cities. The local Republican Party is also said to have been founded in the same home in late 1854, soon after the founding of the national Republican Party.
It wasn’t until 1865 that the original Bryn Du mansion, an Italianate structure, was built by local businessman Henry D. Wright, who created the home from sandstone quarried from a rear portion of the property. Several other families owned the home before it was purchased in 1905 by John Sutphin Jones, a railroad and coal tycoon who, after making his fortune, moved his family from downtown Granville to the countryside estate just outside of town.
Jones, remembered most notably for building the Granville Inn and Granville Golf Course, hired well-known Ohio architect Frank Packard for major renovations to the home, which evolved to reflect its current Federal style. A number of famous guests—from U.S. presidents to musicians, actors and artists—visited the estate during the family’s occupancy, even after Jones died and his daughter Sallie Jones Sexton inherited the property.
Sexton, an accomplished equestrian known locally for her vibrant personality, managed the farm and inn until the estate later went into bankruptcy. The property was purchased in the late 1970s and had a number of owners following that time. At one point, it was used as a restaurant and at another time it was the headquarters for an educational company known as Quest International.
Quirky basket businessman Dave Longaberger, founder of The Longaberger Company, purchased it in 1995, although he never became a full-time resident of the property. He constructed an indoor tennis court and began massive renovations to the mansion—most of which were never completed before his death in 1999.
In 2002, the Village of Granville purchased the mansion for $2.4 million from The Longaberger Company, after a lively community debate and a vote of village residents, who approved the measure. Granville Township pitched in some funds from its green space preservation levy and was granted ownership of half of the front lawn, in exchange. Two years after the purchase, the Bryn Du Commission was appointed and the organization was later established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Since the commission took over, Bryn Du has developed a robust calendar hosting weddings and other special events. Its seven members have worked diligently to oversee the restoration of the former home’s spaces. Moore is among four original members who still sit on the commission. Also among them is longtime Granville resident and noted landscape architect Keith Myers, who currently serves as vice president of planning and real estate for Ohio State University, overseeing the massive upgrade of the High Street corridor that passes the main campus.
“I have always felt that the acquisition of Bryn Du was a fine example of village and township governments cooperating to implement the stated desire of the community, as established by a vote, to shape its future,” says Myers. “When government works well, the life of a community is inevitably enhanced.”
Under the direction of Cramer and the commission, Bryn Du’s walls have been replaced, ceilings repaired by specialized professionals and original details, such as light fixtures, hardware and doors, have been repurposed or updated.
One of the major challenges of the restoration work, however, is finding the funding to do it. Primarily funded through rental fees, as well as allocations by the Village of Granville, donations, grants and other contributions, all renovations are carefully researched and discussed in advance.
“There’s a lot of history here, and we try to remember that when we’re putting the facilities to use,” says Moore.
Since 2004, over $2 million has been invested in improvements to the property. About $1.5 million of that comes from grants and rental fees, and approximately $600,000 has been contributed by the Village of Granville, according to Cramer.
“From the beginning, the Bryn Du Commission determined that with eight buildings, two garden areas and three parking lots, renovation and development would be a multi-year process,” explains Cramer. “The Bryn Du Commission has been guided by a long term phased development master plan. Over the years, it has modified some of the timing, focusing on some of the smaller buildings rather than the upper floors of the mansion, but by and large it has followed the phased plan.”
Thus, renovation projects are slow and ongoing. The strategic master renovation plan devised by the commission is displayed on an easel in the mansion’s conference room, serving as a roadmap for future projects.
Today, the main floor of the mansion is completely renovated. Though unfurnished, it includes a grand living room, a billiard room and east and west solariums that are available for weddings, meetings and other events.
Wood-paneled walls, fireplaces, large windows with views of the grounds and neoclassical, Adam-style ceilings remind guests of the home’s history and charm. Though the formal dining room was left intact, a large portion of the rear of the home was gutted during its previous ownership, giving the Bryn Du Commission flexibility in reimagining the space. Public restrooms and a spacious catering kitchen were added within the existing space.
There’s still much work to be done on the second and third floors of the home, aside from the completed Bryn Du office space and a nearby dressing room and a restroom used for bridal parties. Future plans include adding an elevator, and possibly gallery, classroom, meeting and more office spaces. “There’s a lot to be done in this actual building,” says Moore, “As we looked at uses, some of the outer buildings were better … for what we needed.”
Thus, renovations have been done on several of the property’s other buildings. For example, the historic spring house where perishable foods were kept fresh now serves as a green room for a newly built outdoor stage. This was a project set in motion this year after Granville Recreation District’s free concert series was moved from a lawn owned by Denison University to Bryn Du.
The stage, built of concrete and salvaged stone from the property, is positioned against the small spring house. Although the building was updated with seating and a bathroom, some special details remain inside, including an exposed brick wall. A trough where flowing water once kept foods cool has been transformed into a bathroom sink.
A similar mentality has gone into other renovations completed over the last several years. To make use of what was once a large indoor tennis court built by Longaberger, the massive structure has become a multi-sports field house ideal for a wide variety of sporting and other events. Several yards away, an original carriage house on the property now serves as meeting space, featuring an updated kitchen, original concrete floors, a built-in work bench and large, wooden sliding doors.
In keeping with the commission’s mission of promoting culture and education, an art center now functions in a former pool house, providing classroom space for budding artists. (The mansion’s swimming pool was removed by a former owner.) Equipped with a large studio and adjoining gallery space for shows, the commission members work to schedule artists of various mediums to teach classes for adults and children.
This year, a new artist-in-residence space has been created in the former laundry house. The program, slated to begin in 2019, will invite a broad spectrum of artists, writers or musicians to live and work in the building. The first floor of the renovated structure can be used as a studio, classroom and performance space. An updated kitchen is nearby. The second level includes living quarters for the artist in residence.
With numerous projects completed and countless left to tackle, Moore says the commission is focused on staying plugged into the community’s needs and wants for Bryn Du. “There are always new ideas, new things people want to use the facilities for,” she says. “We’re always trying to stay in touch with the community and our users.”
As work continues around the property, one of the biggest challenges will be the large, historic horse barn, which currently serves as the property’s storage space for mowers and maintenance equipment. A massive structure with untapped potential, it has already required an investment to repair its foundation to keep it safe and structurally sound.
Despite their long involvement with the property, both Cramer and Moore are excited about the work that remains. “This is something that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of thought,” says Cramer.