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Courthouse Inn Brings Opulence to Lisbon

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LISBON, Ohio — A first-time visitor to the pyramids in Egypt, or the Colosseum in Rome can’t help but marvel at the manpower mustered and the resources gathered to build such structures. One can’t help but have a similar feeling upon entering the Courthouse Inn & Restaurant in Lisbon.

From the meticulously arranged flowers to the building materials used – even the ingredients in the food – all leave the guest overwhelmed.

“I want to offer people something they’ve never seen, food they’ve never tasted,” says owner Renee (pronounced Rennie) Lewis. “It’s world-class. I want people to have a world-class experience in Lisbon, Ohio.”

Lewis opened the Courthouse Inn & Restaurant last January after spending 11 years and well into the seven figures on renovations.

As she walks through the inn, the silver-haired Lewis can, and does, stop almost constantly to tell the stories behind every aspect of the building. What an area used to be. What it was made of. And the great effort expended in restoring it.

Two years went into gutting and cleaning the building. Five additions that had been added over the years were demolished. Three years of effort went into the patio furniture alone. The patio furniture is made entirely of solid jade boulders retrieved from the Yangtze River in China.

“We had to get somebody to dredge it out of the river, get it on a transport, and load it on a ship to Seattle,” Lewis relates, where a train took it to New York before it was shipped on a semi-truck to Columbus to be cut and polished.

You might ask why Lewis spent so much money, time and effort to acquire tables and chairs from such hard-to-get materials. “They’re fabulous,” she says matter-of-factly.

Her passions can be seen throughout the building.

Each bathroom is lined with hundreds of crystal tiles, each about a square inch or smaller. “They have 36 faces on them. Everyone takes pictures of the bathrooms,” she says.

The patio floor is made of foundation stones recovered from nearby houses.

Years of paint were removed by hand because the original brick is homemade and porous, meaning traditional methods of paint removal couldn’t be employed.

Even the bar had to be done no fewer than three times to make sure it met Lewis’ standards.

Lewis is an artist at heart. She grew up in Salem and today divides her time between Lisbon and New York, where she is a successful jewelry designer.

Her husband, Michael Spirtos, admits that when he heard her idea to purchase and renovate a building hours from their home, “My reaction wasn’t initially good.”

Courthouse-Inn-Owners

Wearing her purple-framed glasses, Lewis smiles at him before going a step further and exclaiming, “He hated the idea!”

When not in New York, Lewis and Spirtos live in a section of the inn she calls the “Fairy Tale Castle.”

The castle sits next to the outdoor patio that overlooks a garden and waterfall. It’s so beautiful that Lewis says people, often Mennonites, show up unannounced to take pictures in front of it. However, the recent addition of a statue of Buddha seems to have put a stop to that.

The front door to the castle is a 140-year-old antique. Above it sits an ornamental conical tower tiled in copper.

“Each one of those pieces had to be hand-cut to fit together,” she says.

Inside the castle Spirtos can be found handling the financials of the business as well as some of the daily operations. He’s also become much more accepting of, if not resigned to, his wife’s endeavor.

“I had my doubts but she was right,” he allows. “People will come because it’s beautiful.”

Lewis never shared his reservations.

“There’s so much history here,” she says. “The idea that the building was going to be torn down like so many others, I had to purchase it.”

Construction began in 1801 on what came to be known as the Hamilton Building, eventually the Courthouse Inn, because of its proximity to Courthouse Square. The Hamilton Building was completed in 1803.

Today it is the oldest brick building in Ohio but that’s not the only reason it’s significant.

The signature on the first deed is Thomas Jefferson’s. The explorers Lewis and Clark are said to have stayed here before continuing to St. Louis where they embarked in 1806 on their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

President Lincoln is reported to have stayed here several times and Edwin Stanton, his secretary of war, had offices in the building for 30 years.

Guests at the inn can stay in the Stanton Suite, which once housed the secretary’s law office.

Like all of the four rooms on the second floor, the Stanton Suite features a bed with handmade mattresses and European linens, handmade rugs, original oil paintings and stained glass windows.

“All of the floors are the original floors,” says manager Jennifer Pitts. “And all of the wood is the original wood.”

Lewis enjoys the rooms so much that she’s “not wild about people staying there because I don’t want them to disturb the beauty,” she says laughing.

Guests also have access to laundry, a shared living space with a library and a large balcony that overlooks the outdoor patio.

The patio is made of copper and the door (as are all in the inn) is made of bronze. Lewis estimates this door weighs 2,000 pounds.

On the first floor, guests will find the cafe, restaurant, bar, and – if you look closely – some of the steel beams brought in to keep the heavy second floor from crashing down.

The bar, built in Youngstown, is made of solid copper. From behind it, the bartender serves beer, wine and spirits. All juices for mixed drinks are freshly squeezed every day – except the cranberry juice.

During the winter, guests can also enjoy jazz played on a Steinway piano that once belonged to Lewis’ mother.

The restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offers vegetarian cuisine.

“There were no good vegetarian restaurants in Lisbon,” Lewis explains, adding that she’s been a vegetarian all her life.

Asked if an infant can decide to be vegetarian, she replies, “I did. My mother said she would try and feed me meat and I wouldn’t eat it.”

Still, Lewis admits, not all people share her enthusiasm for a meat-free diet, so she decided the restaurant should specialize in comfort foods. The important thing, she says, is keeping it fresh.

“We don’t own a freezer,” Lewis says. “Our manager goes to farms every day and picks up our vegetables.”

The Courthouse Inn obtains its food from five farms, all within 30 miles of Lisbon.“In the summer, everything is local and farm to table. In the winter, it will be more difficult, so we’ll probably have to use some canned things,” Lewis says.

The task of figuring out how that will work falls to head chef Thomas Ullom. “Right now we’re ending summer, so we’re starting our new menu for the fall,” he says. “All the fresh fall items will be coming in.”

Among the dishes Ullom has created are a twice-baked sweet potato casserole with beets, stuffed heirloom peppers and a beer-cheese soup.

“I try to blend the flavors so you get that powerful richness, so you’re not going to want any meat,” the chef elaborates. “You’re not going to miss it.”

Other dishes on the menu are eggplant parmigiana, lasagna and a veggie burger. The most expensive dish, the eggplant, is $20.

Lewis says they prepare the food either lightly salted or with no salt. That allows guests to salt their own food to taste. But don’t think you’ll be left using mere table salt.

On each table sits a grinder that holds pink Himalayan sea salt.

“It’s primordial,” Lewis says. “This is from the beginning when the earth was created. So it’s 500 million to four billion years old. It’s divine and has a really wonderful taste.”

No less effort goes into the items at the cafe. Each day the glass cabinet is filled with fresh pies and cakes for those looking for a sweet accompaniment to their coffee or espresso.

Lewis says an 81-year-old woman makes the pies, that she “wins all the county fair contests,” while her daughter bakes the cakes.

“Her pies are the stuff of dreams,” she declares.

The Courthouse Inn employs 17, including a full-time horticulturist, but the 17 excludes Lewis, Spirtos and the two bakers. Still, Lewis says the reception her business has received is a little disappointing.

“The community isn’t particularly supportive,” she says, citing the relatively few customers from in-town and a few brush-ups with zoning department. “But we get a lot of customers from Youngstown, Poland, Canfield,” she says, and even as far as Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

“We had a couple in here from Boston who said this was nicer than anything they had there,” she says.

When asked what’s next for the Courthouse Inn, a slight smile appears on Lewis’ face and her eyes glance over to Spirtos, who is shaking his head.

“My husband will shoot me if I get another idea.”

Pictured at top: The opulent Courthouse Inn and Restaurant is at 116 W. Lincoln Way in Lisbon.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.