It’d be fair to say that The Courthouse Inn is a jewel of a building, which perhaps explains part of its appeal for veteran jewelry designer Renee Lewis. Located in Lisbon, Ohio, near Lewis’s hometown, the brick edifice has a history that rivals that of any structure in the country—it was built in 1802 when Lisbon was on the frontier of the American west, its original deed was signed by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, three former presidents including Abraham Lincoln have stayed there, and it served as witness to Lewis and Clark’s departure for their famous expedition. So when the oldest building in the state of Ohio was set to be demolished in 2000, Lewis found that she couldn’t sit idly by.
“I really couldn’t bear to see this piece of history go the way of the wrecking ball,” the designer told us when we recently spoke to her about the 11-year undertaking that she and her husband Michael recently completed, restoring the exterior of the building to an historically accurate state while working her creative magic on its interior. The long-vacant structure now houses the results of an incredible amount of labor: The Courthouse Inn, a quaint guesthouse with four suites; Renelee’s, the area’s only vegetarian restaurant; Sidebar, a watering hole serving handcrafted cocktails in an elegant setting; and Love Café, a coffee shop that offers house-baked desserts and made-to-order espresso drinks.
Even with all the work that’s gone into the massive project, it wasn’t one that Lewis initially set out to undertake. “I thought I’d buy the building and restore just the outside to show people how beautiful it was. And, hopefully, to jumpstart people restoring the town,” she says. That plan, unfortunately, didn’t have the desired result. “People loved driving by and looking at it, but it didn’t inspire anybody to invest. That’s when I decided, well, we need great food, a great place to stay, and a great bar. That’s how the metamorphosis happened.”
And what a rebirth it’s been. After eleven years of work and an investment of their entire life savings, Lewis and her husband were finally able to reveal their labor of love to the public earlier this year. The biggest payoff, for Lewis at least, has been a creative one. “Having made jewelry for 38 years and making pieces that can fit in the palm of your hand, the thrill was having so much space in which to be creative. I had a whole building that I could remake in the vein of how I make a jewel, attending to every detail of its nooks and crannies, floors, and rooms.”
In addition to the creative challenges, there was also the fact that Lewis wasn’t operating on the terms of how she lives in Manhattan, where she’s resided for decades, but rather on the terms of small town Ohio where she grew up. “The town has gone from being on the forefront of the American frontier, to the point where it’s now considered Appalachia.” Trying to carve out a place for her outside-the-box creative venture in rural Ohio was a challenge Lewis readily accepted, just as she’s been taking on challenges throughout her career. “I like to do things that haven’t been done before,” she says. “In jewelry, I created things that just weren’t being done in the ‘70s, and it was difficult sell in the beginning.”
Even with this tenacious attitude, though, there was one battle that Lewis found herself continuously losing when returning to Ohio to visit her mother: the lack of vegetarian dining options. As a lifelong vegetarian, including a restaurant that she herself could frequent became a mission for Lewis, and one that has begun to serve an underrepresented segment of the area well. “We’ve become a destination place for a certain group of people,” she says of Renelee’s. “Being a vegetarian, farm-to-table, and organic restaurant, it’s been very tough to get local people to embrace us. I can’t tell you the number of locals who’ve been surprised by the fact that we serve hot food. They think we exclusively sell salads! But we have a steady stream of patrons from Canton and Youngstown, and even from as far as Pittsburgh and Cleveland.”
When asked to pick a single favorite detail from the project, Lewis didn’t hesitate, saying, “I love the bar the best because it’s very sinewy and sexy—it’s got a lot of curves.” Getting it just right, though, required the patience that defines Lewis’s craft as a jeweler. “The artist who made it had never done anything like it before, and he didn’t think he was going to be able to do it because of twisting the copper and metal. I designed it, and he initially told me that it wasn’t going to happen. But they spent a year and a half on building it, since it’s all made by hand and it’s all solid copper, so that’s probably my favorite thing.” Those copper elements extend to the tables in the café and restaurant, lending a sense of continuity to the space. This artistic flow was important to Lewis. “Every detail is made like you’d make a piece of jewelry.”
That the details of every room and every element are so personal to Lewis is no accident. The whole project was, after all, one that she undertook for herself. “I just wanted a place to go where I could feel at home, and that didn’t exist in the area.” The fringe benefit, though, has been for others in this corner of Ohio who shared her desire for a comfortable, quiet place to feel at peace. “There were people living here who felt like there was no place for them to go to dine or drink. I wanted to create my own home away from home, and ended up with an oasis for others who were looking for that, too.”
VISIT THE COURTHOUSE INN & RESTAURANT
116 West Lincoln Way, Lisbon, OH 44432