Like a Big Sigh: Coming Home to the Beiger

By+Kathe Brunton

Ever since Ron Montandon was a young boy, Mishawaka’s Beiger Mansion had captivated his eye and his heart. He can’t explain why, but he found himself continually drawn to the four-story neoclassic structure on Lincolnway West. Over the years, he admired it from afar, grieved with others when it was gutted by a fire, celebrated its slow return to life, and even considered leasing space inside for a gallery. Yet he never dreamed he would actually end up owning the turn-of-the-century home of Mishawaka’s first self-made millionaire.

To call it a home would be a stretch in the minds of most people. After all, the total square footage is approximately 22,000 divided among four floors and a lower level. Built of Indiana limestone, the facility comprises 12-foot ceilings, a grand staircase, reception room, grand hall, pub, state dining room, solarium, verandah, music room, a two-bedroom / two-bath penthouse and seven guest rooms – among other features.

Contemplating his 20-year ownership of the historical structure, Montandon says wryly, “Be careful what you wish for.”

His labor of love to return the Beiger to its original grandeur began when he purchased the property in 1989 from the Beiger Heritage Corp. Eighty-six years earlier, in 1903, Martin V. and Susie H. Beiger began construction of the mansion, basing it on the Newport home of their good friends, the Vanderbilts, whom they often visited in Rhode Island. Martin had founded the Ball Band Rubber company, a Mishawaka industrial icon for several decades, and had patented the process by which vulcanized rubber was melded to woolen fleece, leading to the first shoeless winter boot.

Unfortunately, Martin died the first year of construction, and Susie halted the project. A few years later, she changed her mind, and the house was completed in 1908. The original plans called for an elevator, but Susie decided to use the shaft to create large safes on three of the floors. It was a decision that would have an unforeseen consequence. In 1927, Susie fell on the grand staircase, breaking her hip. She later died from complications associated with the fall.

In her will, Susie decreed that the home be turned into a health facility for women, and so it remained for the next 40 years. By the early 1970s, the empty Beiger Mansion was a sad little spot and became slated for demolition to make way for a used car lot. A group of concerned citizens rallied, however, and succeeded in getting the home listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. Sadly, that same group failed to adequately insure it and when arsonists torched the Beiger on Jan. 20, 1975, only a mere $75,000 was available to restore this once-grand mansion.

Post-fire photos show the interior completely gutted. The floors had incinerated, allowing a clear view to the sky through the collapsed roof. Only the fireplaces and chimneys remained, along with a few brick walls and, oddly enough, one Grecian urn and an ornate chair. Within a few months, the community again put their hearts back into the Beiger. But reconstruction proceeded at a snail’s pace, hampered by a lack of funds. By the time Montandon purchased it 14 years later, the Beiger was nominally restored. And the dream of a lifetime loomed before him.

“It was terrifying.,” Montandon admits. “I was 34 and knew I was walking into the unknown.” Still, he says, “It has been a great project for me. I’m very ADD, so I jump back and forth between projects. I’m just now finishing a project I started 18 years ago.”

With a background in landscape architecture and as a commercial electrician, Montandon turned the structure into a bed and breakfast to help pay for the restoration. He resided there briefly after the purchase, then moved away for four years. He returned to the home in 2002 and has lived there since.

In 2000, Dennis Slade joined in partnership with Montandon, bringing “a wealth of talent and energy.” Slade owned an interior design business in Chicago, and his career – which took him from Chicago to California and back again – also brought him expertise in catering, event planning and restaurant management.

“It’s an interesting path and one that is very appropriate for now being at Beiger,” Montandon says.

While in San Francisco, Slade became known for small space design, what he calls “compact living.” Looking around the Beiger, he laughs. “I’m living large now!” he says.

Although they also operate an interior design business called Beiger Homes, the partners’ first love remains the mansion.

“This is a great canvas,” Slade says. “It was absolutely perfect for me to come here. Putting our energies together has been explosive.” Montandon adds, “One of the things that makes our partnership work so well is that we don’t get bogged down by petty egos. We’re both concerned with what is appropriate, what fits the budget, and blending it all together.”

The mansion’s lower level contains a bridal area – Montandon calls the Beiger “wedding central” – a fully equipped workout room, tanning bed and wine cellar. The main level comprises the East reception room, state dining room, grand hall, music room, kitchen facilities and the pub. The grand staircase leads to the seven guest rooms, each with their own bath, on the second floor. Montandon and Slade share the third floor penthouse. The yet unfinished fourth floor was, in its day, the gardener’s quarters.

“All we do is entertain and throw parties,” Montandon says.” It’s exciting. People appreciate this place and are never ready to leave.”
Slade concurs. “Our biggest reward is making people happy. We’re a part of a lot of people’s lives.” The Beiger Mansion has hosted 400 wedding receptions over the years. On Notre Dame football weekends, the same guests have been returning for 18 years. A couple from England also visit year after year.

“The difference between us and other B&Bs,” Slade says, “is that we’re not in their space.” Guests have their own TV and bath, a common sitting area central to the rooms, but still “the warmth and coziness of home.” Even with a rousing reception going on one floor below, the second level is quiet. “There’s no transference of sound,” he notes. The staff of 15-20 includes a full-time chef, housekeepers and a personal trainer.

The partners describe the interior as eclectic, which is true to Susie’s original design. However, “To do her style today would be monumentally expensive,” Montandon says. “In Susie’s day, the walls were hand-painted silk and every room reflected a different country. The East reception room was French. The library was done in an African motif. Another room had a biblical scene on the ceiling from the movie Ben Hur. Today, we have an interesting mix of pieces and have maintained a certain sense of history, regalness and comfort. We call it casual elegance.”
“Everything we make goes right back into the house,” Slade adds. “This is what small business is all about, taking what you have and putting all back into it.”

The partners also are community-oriented, hosting events and meetings for area organizations. “We try to give back,” Montandon says. “People want to be here. It’s a comforting space. That’s what we try to bring to Mishawaka – positive energy. If everybody gave, this would be a phenomenal community.”

Christmas, however, is perhaps the most exciting time to be at the Beiger. When they decorate the home for the holidays, “It’s like the White House,” says Slade. “It takes us three weeks to put everything up and we keep it up for three weeks in January. If we were to put a value on it from a florist standpoint, it would probably be upwards of $50,000.”

In recent years, Montandon and Slade added the four-season statue and fountain at the front of the house and a pool and Jacuzzi at the back. As the partners move forward, they will continue tweaking and renovating and designing. “We try to tackle more projects every year,” Montandon says.

Last year, while searching the Internet, Montandon stumbled across the location of the Beiger’s original landscape plans, which were done by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen. The creator of some of Chicago’s best-known parks, Jensen also was a supporter for the preservation of the Indiana Dunes sand dune ecosystem. Visiting the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Montandon brought copies of Jensen’s design back and plans to follow it as he reshapes and replants the grounds.

Looking around his home of nine years, Slade says, “At one point in the day, you just stop and say ‘wow.’ Great things keep coming our way. Whatever you put out there does come back.” He smiles. “It’s a great feeling when we come home and put the key in the door. When we go away and come back, it’s like a big sigh.”


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