Isobel McGowan

July 19, 2017

Written by Miles Ramsay | Photos by Alysa Ramsay


DEFINITION: dauntless: not easily intimidated; brave.

Ever wanted to scrape paint off the interior woodwork of a 9,000-square-foot mansion? Nobody else wanted to either…except for Isobel McGowan. With grit and determination, she is inspiring St. Joseph to roll up its sleeves and dust off its many architectural treasures.

Walking from room to room through the main floor of Shakespeare Chateau, you are confronted by a striking stained glass window in the Victorian ladies’ parlor. Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war gazes down from above, her right hand propping up a spear, her left hand clasping the lamp of learning.

Athena has been labeled the leader of all intellectual pursuits such as literature and poetry, and doubles as the protectress of those going to war. She is known to have fought only for just and purposeful reasons.

Glimpses of Athena’s character shine through the Chateau’s Innkeeper and Historian, Isobel McGowan, as she studiously guides a tour through the 9,000 square foot mansion. Isobel not only educates her guests about the marvels of the Edmond Jacques Eckel architectural design, but implores them to join the fight to preserve the history of St. Joseph as well.

“We have treasures and treasures in this city…. We have been given this legacy from the past and it’s our job to take care of it.”

For years, Isobel had been a frequent visitor to St. Joseph and fell in love with the city’s opulent architecture. In May of 2012, she took a leap of faith and moved away from her home in Denver, Colorado, to pursue the restoration project of a lifetime.

“It’s all about timing in life. The timing was right for me to take retirement from my profession and it was certainly the right timing for this house to have a new owner.”

When she took over ownership of the 1885 property, it was in critical condition. Years of neglect and extensive water damage plagued the structure and much of the original woodwork had been painted over. Isobel set to work meticulously stripping and hand scraping. She spent hundreds of tedious hours cleaning the cracks and crevices of the many ornate, hand carved wood emblems throughout the house.

The result is simply stunning. The woodwork restored to its former glory is the perfect compliment for the Chateau-esque building’s 47 original stained glass windows, grand mantle featuring the bust of Shakespeare, and the grand staircase’s hand carved dragons. Yep, dragons. Isobel says St. Joseph has a lot in common with them.

“This city is like a dragon’s hoard of architectural treasure and it’s all covered with a layer of dust and rust. All you have to do is blow a little bit or rub a little and your eyes are dazzled.”

That’s not an overstatement. During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, St. Joseph had the highest per capita income and more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. A good example of this lavish wealth can be found lining the parlor walls. The prized Zuber wallpaper (also found in the White House) would run you about $61,000 today.

Isobel points out that our city’s history hinges on adaptive reuse and this house in no exception. Over the years it has weathered the changes, from a single-family home, to an apartment building, and now a bed and breakfast, as well as a venue for weddings, dinner parties, and elegant meetings.

It’s hard not to be inspired to follow in Isobel’s footsteps. And if you’re interested in restoring one of St. Joseph’s many historic houses or buildings, she offers the following advice.

“Roll up your sleeves and get to work! If you’re interested in owning a piece of history, don’t be afraid of the dirty work. It is so worth it at the end of the day.”


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