By Shelby Deering | Photography by Shanna Wolf
The unmistakable sound of a car on the gravel driveway can only mean one thing — guests are arriving at Bethany Souza’s historic home, tucked into a wooded thicket within view of South Lake Shore Drive. In the same way that she welcomed guests to Baker House and Maxwell Mansion, two historic hotels that she founded, her home has become an inn of sorts as well. Friends and family find themselves drawn to the airy patios, the sleeping porch, the lofted guest hideaway and the vintage finds presented seamlessly in one vignette after another.
After wrapping up her time as a real estate expert on the HGTV show “Designed to Sell,” Souza settled into a new life in Lake Geneva. With a background as a designer, staging professional and real estate developer, focusing primarily on the hospitality industry, Souza’s passion is working as a historic redeveloper, restoring inns and bygone buildings to their former glory. That’s exactly what she did with Baker House and Maxwell Mansion, two 19th-century mansions living out second acts as inns, complete with historic details like a Prohibition-themed Speakeasy Bar, a proper parlor with a grand piano and true-to-the-time vintage décor.
Much like these inns, stepping into her home feels as if you’re entering another era.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Souza’s pull toward all-things-vintage started when she was growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“I grew up in a house that was built in the 1890s,” she says. “We had an old barn in the back, and the attic was filled with all kinds of treasures — Persian rugs, cases of old Victorian clothing. My mom used to make my Halloween costumes out of things we found in the attic. By the time I was in my 20s, I loved everything vintage.”
Her respect for the past has drawn her to homes in which she says she feels “the walls can talk.” So, it was only natural that when she first viewed her house, which had been sitting in disuse for three years but had a long history, she knew she was home.
Souza shares, “The land attracted me, and when I saw what’s now my billiard room, the idea started to bloom and it just felt right. It has that feeling of good energy.”
The house has had plenty of years to amass all that good energy. Souza dated some nails that she pulled from the floorboards, and although some real estate listings say that the dwelling was built in 1890, the nails point to an earlier era of the 1870s. In her research, Souza learned that her home and the surrounding neighbors’ barns were once a part of the servants quarters and farm known as Story Brook Farm that serviced a lakefront estate. The home later became a tea room in the 1950s, fittingly called Story Brook Tea Room.
Through the years, various owners have put their stamp on the house, building additions and turning it into a layout that Souza says “rambles.” At just under 4,000 square feet, the house features five bedrooms and five baths and has a floor plan that weaves and winds as a result of its many add-ons.
REFRESHING THE HOME
Souza, who says that she does things “fairly quickly in general,” had a clear vision in mind when the renovations began in early 2017, taking only a few months to remodel the home until move-in day. Relying on two area contractors who worked with her on projects at Baker House and Maxwell Mansion, she shared her ideas for the property. Together, Souza and the team of Keith Robers of Midwest Reclaimed Lumber and Francisco “Pancho” Gonzales, a friend who has become like a brother to her, revived the storied home.
With a dedication to authenticity, which included keeping original beams and integrating an antique stove from the 1940s into the kitchen, some areas were completely revitalized. The kitchen and dining room received new flooring, lofting was done in the front of the house to accommodate for a guest room and two bathrooms received full renovations with steam showers and fresh tiling.
But even with all of the beautiful updates, Souza feels that her desire to renovate will never be quieted. She says, “It could be 20 years from now, and it will never be complete. Especially in an older home, there are always unique things and the ideas in my head never shut off.”
Next, Souza has plans to finish what she is calling “the bunk room,” a nautically-themed space which will spotlight a sail pulled from the boat that her son, Logan, learned to sail on. The sail will come up and over two beds — one that’s lofted, and one that looks like a boat. Guests will climb into the upper bed using an antique apple-picking ladder.
And that’s only a glimpse into the vintage spirit that permeates this home.
DÉCOR WITH A STORY
Upon stepping into Souza’s home, you’ll likely hear some Ragtime music or 1920s jazz wafting through the air, played on an Amazon Echo or a vintage Victrola. Then you’ll spot the bearskin rug, a now-permanent resident of the bright-red library. And everywhere you look — vintage, vintage, vintage.
Souza calls her decorating style “layering,” saying, “It’s like a wedding cake. You start with this great, delicious cake, then you add the icing and from there, you add in the little accoutrements. I love adding layers of patina and interest. You might get dizzy looking at all the strange things tucked in everywhere, but it’s definitely a treasure chest.”
Focusing on Edwardian to Jazz Age pieces, Souza is a frequent fixture at the Elkhorn Flea Market and Leslie Hindman’s Auction House. You’ll also see her scoping out Lake Geneva’s 281 Sheridan Springs, a consignment warehouse, the Lake Geneva Antique Mall and Walworth’s Angelus Home, Garden, Lifestyle. She also scours estate sales and Craigslist for offbeat items.
Saying that she enjoys “dramatic things” and “things that can bring you back in time,” she’s continually questing after rare and unusual curiosities. Although there’s a maximalist design feel to the home, there are eye-catching pieces that can’t help but stand out in Souza’s spaces.
There’s the billiard room that looks a lot like how a “man cave” might have appeared in the 1920s. A canoe from a Northern Wisconsin Indian reservation acts as a pseudo-chandelier, outfitted with LED lights and hung above the vintage pool table. “I allow people to smoke cigars in this room because I think the scent only adds another sensory layer of vintage mystique,” Souza says.
A lofted guest room is appointed with perfectly-knotty barn wood (the handiwork of Keith Robers of Midwest Reclaimed Lumber), ceiling tins pulled from a Wisconsin church and a chandelier which Souza has tried to “sell at multiple garage sales” but it ultimately found a home above the guest bed.
Souza has even set up a ladies’ lounge, a throwback to the feminine parlors of yore. Swathed in pinks, whites and yellows, Souza says that the room “pays homage to the East Coast” with its seashells and coastal touches. When her girlfriends sit in the lounge, everyone is offered a rhinestone crown to wear. “This room has all my favorite things,” she says.
She’s done an exquisite job of bringing her favorite things together in harmony.
AN ECLECTIC MIX
One word to describe Souza’s home is certainly eclectic, but really, it’s an assemblage of the great loves of her life. A velvet Edwardian coat, which Souza wears to parties, somehow pairs flawlessly with her dining room décor. Her kitchen island is an artful mish-mash of reclaimed corbels, luxurious marble and a vintage dresser. And all the crystal chandeliers look impeccable in each distinct room.
“It’s interesting, because I shop for what I like. It all just starts to blend. I’ll come home with a pillow in a certain fabric, and I’ll be shocked at how it mixes,” she says.
She strives to stay true to the early 20th century, which does create some cohesion. “I love to decorate with mid-century modern, but you won’t really see any of that in here,” she says. She also brings in some new pieces, like a custom tufted headboard, to keep things “clean and crisp.”
To achieve a similar eclectic masterpiece with vintage finds, Souza has some words of wisdom.
She advises, “Buy what you love and not what you think might be worth money. Buy what you’re drawn to, and it will be amazing. It’s amazing how things come together with what you already have in your home.”
Souza adds that vintage shoppers should “look at the condition of things,” “don’t buy too many projects, because they’ll just sit in your garage” and she says, “always negotiate.”
Whether she’s relaxing on her sleeping porch, designing in her decorated she shed where she listens to the wind rustling through the trees or spending festive evenings with friends in her ladies’ lounge or billiard room, Souza knows in her heart that this is her forever home.
She says, “My favorite thing about my home is coming home to it. I walk in and think how could I ever part with it. I love this house so much. It’s really an interpretation of my soul and a collection of all my favorite things.”