Barb Johnson wants the story behind The Grant House known to all who visit and treasure it.
The nostalgia, the architecture, the old brick and mortar, the French carpet, the history — from the fire of 1895 to records indicating frequent visits by President Ulysses S. Grant — and the people who take pride in its place in the Rush City community. They all drive her to bring the establishment back to what it once was through a vision with no end.
Johnson, who lives in Burnsville, is approaching her third month of owning The Grant House Hotel & Eatery, 80 West 4th St., which was previously owned by Todd Johnston. She closed on the business Nov. 29, 2012, which was not in the plans after retiring from a rewarding career as a flight attendant for the U.S. government.
In an interview last week, she said she discovered the opportunity when her ex-husband in San Diego contacted her about this hotel and restaurant business that was up for sale in a town north of the Twin Cities.
“I said to him, ‘Why in the world would I buy a hotel and eatery, and where is Rush City?’” recalled Johnson of her initial reaction upon hearing the news. “He said to check it out and see.”
So she made the trip north in June of last year and instantly fell in love with what she saw and felt upon setting foot in the front entry.
“Right when I walked in, I knew I had to have it. It was mine,” she said with enthusiasm. “I remember saying, ‘This is beautiful, this is beautiful.’ It kind of spoke to me. The rest is history, and I jumped in with both feet.”
In her first days as owner, Johnson said she “Barbified” the place by dressing the dining room tables with fresh, new tablecloths and putting her collection of antique China on display. Also helping out have been her daughter and son-in-law, Shannon and Dan Clarke, who are minor partners with a share of the ownership.
From the government world, which had her serving thousands of troops being transported to the Middle East earlier in her flying days, to small town business ownership, Johnson admits she still feels stress, but in a different way. She consumed herself with thinking about the hotel and restaurant all last summer. And it has yet to stop.
“I’m feeling more stress because I want to get The Grant House up to speed,” she said. “When I purchased it, I saw a lot of things I wanted to do immediately. For one, I wanted to redecorate all the rooms in the hotel.”
Johnson calls herself a “repurposer,” meaning she likes to use things that are second hand, things that had meaning in another’s life at some point. She began collecting and purchasing items reflective of the historic eatery and hotel and put them in storage throughout the summer.
“I shared my vision with my good friends (one, an artist; the other, a professional floral designer) who helped redecorate the rooms,” she noted. “The first room took three days.”
From the main dining area to the Rose Room to the 11 renovated rooms that make up the hotel in the upper floors, her mission was and continues to be adding the right touch that complements the history, beauty and environment, overall, that makes The Grant House one of a kind.
In fact, she is planning on creating a “history wall,” complete with old pictures and things to show people the historical path the Grant House has taken. “I want people to know where it started, how it got here and everything in between,” she explained. “It’s been traumatic for the old girl.”
In her research of The Grant House, Johnson quickly became attracted to the interior’s fine woodwork, done by a gentleman who spent around six years and likely seven figures worth of renovations.
“It took a lot of love and vision of grandeur to renovate this girl from the way she started out, and it took him four years to complete the woodwork,” she said. Yet it was never in good enough shape to open for him at the time, she added.
She has learned about the unique relationship between The Grant House and the community that’s housed it since 1880.
“Rush City was an integral part of the hotel, and the hotel was important to the town. It has stood the test of time, as other businesses have come and gone. The Grant House has survived. Somewhere in her bones she has the will to live in spite of all,” said Johnson of the tough economic times and even the fire of 1895 that couldn’t stop the establishment from enduring.
In addition, Johnson is proud of her staff, as all 14 employees who worked for Johnston are still on duty. The Grant House reminds her of growing up in a small town outside of Lakeville where her mom and dad were proprietors of a gas station.
“I didn’t expect this kind of family environment,” she admitted of the bond she has with the staff. “I’ve forgotten what this is like, what a small town really offers. We have each other’s back, even when life happens.”
As for the community, “There are gracious people here in Rush City,” she noted. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be here. There is a lot to the town that’s fun and vibrant. People care here.”
She added of people’s feelings toward The Grant House, “People really love this place. There’s a lot of pride with people here. It gives me motivation to do more. Customers can expect great home cooking at a great price and great customer service. You just don’t find a Grant House anymore.”
Johnson firmly believes The Grant House has a life of its own and had a say in its longevity. “She has decided to survive. She found me. I had no intention of buying anything. I was retiring and going to work part-time and getting reacquainted with family and all the special occasions,” she explained.
Her connection with the hotel and restaurant also comes into play with each of their abilities to survive. While The Grant House was rebuilt about a year after the original structure burned in 1895, Johnson is now cancer free after having been diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. She also had 17 surgeries.
“The Grant House is a survivor, and I guess I am, too,” she said. “Maybe we can relate.”
Johnson is optimistic with the direction The Grant House is taking under her leadership.
This spring, she’ll be taking it outside and planting flower beds and an herb garden to match the beauty on the inside. Always the “repurposer,” she even has a few iron bed frames with head and foot boards from the 1800s that can be used in the flower bed. “It was ready for the scrap yard,” she confessed.
Down the road, Johnson wants to install a stone pathway that will take her guests down to the two ponds in the back of the building. She likes the idea of a gazebo in that area, too, for people to dine, read a book and perhaps attend a wedding ceremony one day.
She also wants to have a few old quilts on hand, so people can have a good old-fashioned picnic with kids running around or a romantic outing with wine and wine glasses.
“This vision is in my head,” she said of why she doesn’t write her ideas down. “I know exactly what I want. I want people to enjoy the outside, too.”
Johnson added, “I’m anxious to get started. I have people volunteering to help me plant flowers. People are so interested in donating things.”