The gem of Powelton Village Victorian mansions: The Cornerstone B&B

Walk some short six blocks north from the bustling activity on Market Street in University City and you’ll find a gem—the Cornerstone Bed and Breakfast, shrouded under the shade of the quiet, tree-lined Powelton Village street it stands on.

Cornerstone B&B in Fourth of July regaliaThis particular Victorian mansion from 1870, on the corner of 33rd and Baring streets in Powelton Village, is just as beautiful inside as out. But be careful, texting and walking could be dangerous because you might just miss it and then lose the chance to see one of Powelton Village’s most elegant examples of Victorian architecture and style.

This exquisite church-stone mansion features original red oak and black walnut floors, twelve-foot ceilings and a grand staircase made of Honduran Mahogany. But what really makes the inside stand out is the seven stained-glass windows that adorn the walls and turn light into a prism of colors. They’re not just windows; they’re art—crafted in the early 20th century.

Cornerstone stained glass
One of the elegant stained glass windows in the CornerstoneB&B

The previous owners of the B&B weren’t as kind to the work and upkeep that makes a Victorian home special. “On the surface everything was fine,” said Dennis Bartelme, one of the owners of the B&B, a family business, along with his wife, Liz, and son-in-law and daughter Chris and Jules Spaeth. “They didn’t paint. They were less then handy. A few things were jerry-rigged.” Basically, he concluded that they treated the B&B as an ATM.

Dennis and Jules
Dennis Bartelme and Jules Spaeth

Dennis and Chris are pretty handy, though, and fixed up much of the home themselves. However, for some things, like wiring, they had to bring in a professional. But in the end, they restored the home to its former glory—and then some. Dennis had a lot of experience in traveling given that his previous occupation was as a lease negotiator for developers of shopping centers and malls across the country, so he knew what travelers wanted. So, he modernized it to make sure every room had a desk and that the house has Wi-Fi. But as far as running a B&B, they learned as they went. “None of us had any prior experience,” Dennis said.

Dining room
The Cornerstone's dining room

The idea for running one was his daughter Jules’ idea. She fell in love with the concept in her teens and it grew stronger as she aged and went to college. Ideally, she wanted one in a more bucolic setting, but sometimes you go left when you meant to go right and arrive at the place you wanted to be all along. And after Dennis was downsized in the recession, she came to him with the idea of purchasing a B&B in an urban setting, right in the heart of Philadelphia.

Luckily, Dennis had enough cash and liquid assets on hand for a down payment. They made a bid on the business and it was accepted. They moved in on Nov. 10, 2008, right at the height of our nation’s financial crisis. “We had a lot of trepidation,” Dennis said, “and we learned a lot about cash management.”

It was quite a risk, but one that paid dividends. In all, they spent around $1.125 million for the home, the repairs, and the redecorating. “Some of the décor was over the top and had to be removed,” Dennis said. They bought new linens, painted all the walls and converted it into a Victorian mansion that feels like you’ve stepped into Victorian times. Last year its occupancy rate was 70 percent; the average occupancy rate for a B&B is 39 percent.

That took many hours of hard work, because the old owners weren’t worried about reviews, so Chris had to go around and contact Web sites and ask them to remove them all, especially the bad ones, since the B&B was now under new management. The Web sites obliged. Then they went to all the major tourist sites and universities and got put on their lists of local accommodations. And if you’re looking to book a room here, there’s an app for that.

Dennis said that most of his clientele are parents of freshmen who come to visit their children at school; oftentimes they are repeat customers who stay at the inn every time they visit Philadelphia. Then there are parents who stay there when checking out a school and the neighborhood. It’s also listed on the United States Medical Licensing Examination Web site, since doctors who have to take the exam to receive a medical license in the United States must come to University City.

guest room
A Cornerstone guest room combines old-time charm and modern comfort and convenience

“What we enjoy the most is just chatting in the morning with our guests,” Dennis said. “We have been given a global view about the world. We’ve had five visitors from Nepal, expats from the former Soviet states, people from Pakistan, most of the European countries, and even Formosa [Taiwan].”

And unlike a hotel, staying at a B&B gives the guest one-on-one time with someone from the area who has a lot vested in the business, so they can tell them the best places to visit, how to get there, and other little things, like who makes the best cheesesteaks—in Dennis’s opinion, that would be Jim’s on South Street.

-By Matt Stringer for PhiladelphiaRealEstate.com

All photos by the author