A Five-Diamond Inn Where?

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2002

I scan the predictable places on AAA's 2002 list of five-diamond lodgings -- hotels like the Peninsula in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, the Ritz-Carltons here and there. My eyes jerk to a halt at the Buhl Mansion in Sharon, Pa.

Sharon? The working-class town with worn-out coal mines and decrepit hulks of rusting steel mills? This I've got to see.

Well, I saw, and it's no mistake. Here in the westernmost part of Pennsylvania sits one of the most elegant, romantic properties in the United States. The turn-of-the-century mansion, which includes a spa, is one of only two bed-and-breakfasts in North America to earn a five-diamond rating.

How it came to do so mirrors the story of America -- its triumphs, its periods of defeat and struggle, and most important, its vitality and offer of second chances.

The mansion, inspired by an Italian castle and built in 1898 with money made by steel production, was battered by the 1929 stock market crash. It fell victim to the indigence of an heir, then the collapse of the American steel industry. The final blow was nearly delivered by the beneficence of the federal government, and its awesomely flawed revitalization programs.

A few years ago, the mansion built by steel magnate James Buhl was a dilapidated eyesore that had defaulted into the hands of a struggling little city. With no money to save it, the city seemed to have no choice but to demolish it.

But just before the mansion was lost forever, a Horatio Alger-type stepped forward. James E. Winner Jr., a dirt-poor farm boy from nearby Transfer, Pa., had made a fortune inventing the Club, a device to prevent car thefts. He loved the town of Sharon and agreed to save one of its most precious historic assets.

Today, some millions of dollars later, the Buhl Mansion has returned to its original glory. Guests can choose from 10 rooms, including my favorite, the Grand Gables, where the ceilings are 15 feet high, except where the room curves into a turret. There, round wooden walls reach 36 feet. At the base of the octagonal turret is a two-person Jacuzzi.

There's also Mr. Buhl's Room, done up in greens and browns with a copperlike ceiling and a stag motif; the Grand Turret, which was once part of a 1940s ballroom, with a replica of a bed from Hearst Castle; and Julia F. Buhl's room, frilly and feminine, with a king-size bed that fits comfortably into the largest of the mansion's turrets. All the rooms are filled with beautiful objects, like statues and the bric-a-brac I always crave when visiting upscale stores but can't afford. Even the beds are things of beauty.

The mansion's original owner had filled it with works by then-struggling artists like van Gogh, Matisse and Renoir. The newest owners commissioned expert reproductions to hang in museum-quality frames.

In addition to relaxing in an ornate living room, guests can settle into deep wing chairs before fireplaces in small sitting rooms. A Victorian greenhouse sits on manicured lawns, and a carriage house has been turned into an art gallery filled with expertly done reproductions. The most striking piece: a full-scale copy of Michelangelo's David. (The owners, who offer tours to schoolchildren and other groups, say they want to inspire those who will not have the opportunity to see the originals.)

Normally, I travel quasi-budget and consider paying more than $200 for a room to be grossly self-indulgent. But I could justify paying the $395 or so it costs to stay at the Buhl Mansion because the money is used to preserve a unique historic landmark that, without guests, would disintegrate.

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