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More than a fresh coat of paint

Restoration of the historic Olson mansion overlooking Lynwood Center is under way. Builder Bill Nelson (below, left) and Morrie Blossom, whose family once owned the property, stand before the Tudor stylings on the west face of the building.  - JULIE BUSCH photo
Restoration of the historic Olson mansion overlooking Lynwood Center is under way. Builder Bill Nelson (below, left) and Morrie Blossom, whose family once owned the property, stand before the Tudor stylings on the west face of the building.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

The historic Olson mansion at Lynwood gets an extreme makeover.

As kids, Bill Nelson and his pals used to slip out the back door of the Lynwood Theatre, dash across the street, and sneak around the darkened grounds of the hillside mansion above.

They weren’t up to mischief, but there was just something mysterious about the grand old home that fired the young imagination.

“I think it’s always held a huge fascination for me and the community,” Nelson said of historic, Tudor-styled structure that looms over the theater to this day. “It’s an oddity. You don’t see anything else like it on the island.”

So when Nelson got the chance to purchase the building last year and save it from likely demolition, it was a chance to bring a little piece of the island’s past, and his own, into the future.

The building, which has housed a string of restaurants over the past 30 years and may see a new one soon, is undergoing an extensive renovation to pull it from the 19th century into the 21st.

The history of the building is largely the history of the Lynwood Center neighborhood itself.

Island pioneer Emil Olson built the original farmhouse, a modest structure, on the site in 1898, island historian Jerry Elfendahl said.

In 1914, residents between Port Blakely and Crystal Springs consolidated their school districts and built what became known as Pleasant Beach School on land purchased from the Olsons to the south.

In the 1930s, Emil’s son Emanual Olson and his wife Edna significantly added on to the homestead and restyled it with Tudor embellishments.

They used the same Old English theme when they put up commercial buildings across the street, including the Bainbridge Mercantile, some apartment units and the Lynwood Theatre, a palace of escapism in the heart of the Depression.

The property went through a succession of owners over the years, and most recently housed the restaurant Islay Manor.

The building came on the market when the restaurant owners decided to pursue other interests, and Nelson, owner of Winslow construction company Nelson Wood and Glass, picked it up last June.

While always formidable when viewed from without – and with a beau monde mystique inside that made it a popular and somewhat exotic dining spot – the building came with its share of issues, right down to a shaky, cobbled-together foundation.

“Structurally, it was a house of cards,” Nelson said. “Mechanically, the whole thing was deficient. It was just kind of floating here in mid-air, and somehow, gravity couldn’t pull it down.”

Working from a new design by business associate Phil Kummerow, Nelson’s crews gutted most of the building and tore out upstairs office spaces to expose a lofty ceiling.

A new foundation was poured, and the footprint was expanded by 20 percent to allow a new foyer and downstairs restrooms, and a much larger kitchen.

“It was a long winter of some really dirty, hard work,” Nelson said. “There were times when you had to question what you were doing, and would you ever get it back to a building.

“It was a survival project, and we survived it.”

The restoration has had its payoffs. Tearing out an upstairs wall exposed an arched brick chimney and recessed window overlooking the south grounds, to be the signature feature of an upper banquet room.

Such architectural details as the intricate relief of a banister post near the front door, and ornate fascias at the eaves, have been preserved and will be replicated above the new kitchen wing.

Nelson has also preserved the dark paneling of the library, and envisions that room as a lounge area with couches.

“This room is so well-known to the community, we’d be hard-pressed to keep it from going back into public use,” he said.

The building sits on 2.75 acres, and Nelson sees additional commercial potential on the north side of the grounds. He and other investors are also working to assemble adjacent parcels for an 80-home, mixed-use project.

The restaurant building itself should be done this summer, and Nelson is looking for an operator with the right concept to set up shop in what should be a 140-seat capacity space.

Whoever moves in, they’ll get a building that comes with an uncommon gestalt born of its location overlooking Rich Passage as much as its storied past.

“With the setting sun and the southwest exposure, it’s a little slice of heaven on Bainbridge,” Nelson said. “If you’re going to go out on Bainbridge in spring or summer, there’s no better spot.”

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