Entrepreneur launches small business in a big house

By George Pica, Business Examiner staff

Deanna Robinson has everything a small business owner could ask for—a walk-in safe to keep the profits in and the counsel of a high-paid financial expert.

“I tell people he’s the one with a job,” she says of husband Wayne, who is chief financial officer for the Seattle law firm of Perkins Coie. But they’ve both got their work cut out for them as they transform a Lakewood mansion that for many years was an apartment house—and more recently the site of some on-location shooting for a Hollywood motion picture—into a picturesque bed and breakfast.

Commonly referred to as Thornewood Castle, the Gothic Tudor was built on the shores of American Lake in 1911 by Tacoma financier Chester Thorne, who was one of the founders of the Port of Tacoma.

“He was a banker,” Deanna says by way of explaining how Thorne happened to have the walk-in safe installed behind a panel in the mansion’s dining room. He also was a power to be reckoned with in local, state and even national Republican Party politics. Theodore Roosevelt once paid a visit to Thornewood and stayed for a month. William Howard Taft also is said to have stayed there.

You can spend the night in the very room where Roosevelt and Taft slept or in one of several others Deanna and work crews under her supervision have remade into comfortable overnight lodging that rents for $198 to $255 a night, including tax.

On a recent afternoon, crews were at work in the 30,000-square-foot mansion’s great hall, which accommodated two apartments when the Robinsons bought the structure in May and more recently played an important role in Rose Red, a made-for-TV adaptation by ABC/Disney Studios of a Stephen King novel that is scheduled to be broadcast in February 2002. Artificial cobwebs hung from high beams and brass chandeliers were dulled by a coating of make-believe dust.

“This area will be finished by the time your story hits the streets,” Deanna said, referring not just to the faux webs and dust but also to oak panels that are being replaced in the wake of Hollywood’s visit, light fixtures where wires dangle awaiting the period fixtures that will replace the ones preferred by the movie makers and plaster reliefs being repaired on the ceiling overhead.

As she points out details such as the various-shaped sections of colored glass that decorate the leaded window panels, it is clear she’s done a lot of homework. In fact, she confesses, the only thing stored in Thorne’s walk-in safe are copies of the original plans for Thorne’s mansion. Some of the decorative window glass dates to the 14th century, she confides, adding that Thorne had it brought over from Europe during construction of the home.

Walls and false ceilings have been removed from the ballroom, which used to contain two more apartments. As long as many bungalows, the room will be decorated with period furniture and used to host events such as wedding receptions, Deanna says. An entire wall leading to a brick loggia is made up of French doors.

Thornewood Castle already has hosted its first weddings and receptions since the Robinsons took over six months ago. It also hosted its first newlyweds in the honeymoon suite featuring a king-size cherry wood bed and Jacuzzi upstairs.

“Thorne built Thornewood Castle for his bride, Anna,” explains Deanna. “It seemed appropriate that Anna’s bedroom would become the honeymoon suite.”

At the time it was built, the home boasted 50 rooms, 26 of them bedrooms, and 20 baths. The honeymoon suite is one of six bedrooms that have been restored and are now available to guests, Deanna says.

The Robinsons live in one wing of the classic structure, less than a third of the overall space. The rest they’re restoring and decorating with antiques Deanna says she has been collecting all her life. It’s obvious she enjoys showing off the house, its contents and its history.

“We’re going to open the house to guests for high tea the first Thursday of each month,” she says. The cost will be $35 per person, which will include a tour of the structure and a repaste Deanna describes as almost a full meal—scones, tarts, meat pastries, the list goes on until she finally mentions tea in passing.

“We’re going to cut off reservations at 20 people per tea and tour,” says Deanna. “We could handle 40 at a time, but we wanted to maintain the sense of intimacy.”

A special kick-off tea and tour will be offered Jan. 6.

Asked if Wayne is as involved as she is in restoring the mansion, Deanna confides that he prefers gardening.

“He prefers to putter in the half-acre sunken English garden that was designed by Olmsted and listed as one of the country’s premier gardens by the Smithsonian Institution,” she says. “That’s his pride and joy.”