MIDDLE BASS ISLAND, Ohio — The state of Ohio plans to spend up to $5 million to restore the former home of George Lonz, who ran a major winery on this Lake Erie island for nearly 50 years.
Built in 1906, the home sits within Middle Bass Island State Park, which was created in 2001, a year after a fatal porch collapse at the winery closed the popular tourist spot.
Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said it’s time to restore the house to its former glory when Lonz was one of the country’s largest wineries.
“We want to give people a great experience and a stronger connection to the people of the island,” she said.
The state has already invested millions in the park, which covers 124 acres on the south end of Middle Bass Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from mainland Ohio. The island is also a short boat ride from its much busier cousin, South Bass Island, home to the bustling town of Put-in-Bay.
Mertz said the state’s goal is to make Middle Bass a travel destination.
“We want to make sure there’s enough space for a great day out,” she said. “We needed something different for people to enjoy. I think Lonz Mansion is perfect.”
Although Ohio acquired property from Lonz in 2001, it wasn’t until more than a decade later that the state invested the funds to repair it. For years the winery sat empty and in disrepair, a painful reminder of the tragic night in July 2000 when a porch at the winery collapsed, killing one and injuring 75.
When the state finally provided the money for the renovation of the ailing structure, it had gone too far to save completely. Contractors repaired the iconic stone facade and copper-topped observation tower, transforming the building into an open-air pavilion that has become a popular spot for picnics, weddings, live music, and other events.
Five wine cellars under the pavilion house historical exhibits about the winery. The press house behind the pavilion houses a popular coffee shop, the Island Grind. Nearby is a small, primitive campground and a 190-berth marina that fills up on summer weekends.
However, the 3,200-square-foot Lonz Mansion has remained relatively untouched over the years.
Years ago, the state stabilized the structure, repaired the foundation and roof, but postponed any long-term decisions about the building until the future.
The future is now, said Mertz. “It doesn’t look that great, but it has great bones,” she said, noting that the entire interior needs a gutting and rebuild.
The most recent state capital budget included $5 million for the restoration, although Mertz said she hopes it won’t cost that much.
The house was built in 1906 by the island winemaker August Schmidt and sold to George Lonz in 1926 in the middle of Prohibition. Lonz survived Prohibition by selling grape juice with instructions on how to turn it into wine. After a devastating fire in the 1930s, he converted the winery into the well-known castle-like building that still welcomes guests today. He operated the plant until his death in 1969.
The home, which was converted into dormitories for winery workers, was included in the 1979 sale of the property to Cleveland’s Paramount Distillery. Paramount owned the facility when the guest-filled porch collapsed in 2000.
Mertz said no final decisions had been made about how best to use the house after the restoration. She anticipates that the first floor will be open to the public, giving visitors a glimpse of how people lived on the island a century ago. A bed and breakfast could be considered for the second floor if the cost isn’t prohibitive, she said.
Longtime islander Jim Roesch hopes the state will allow the newly formed Middle Bass Island Historical Society to house a museum in the restored home.
In its heyday, the island was a veritable tourist destination — with two wineries, dance halls, hotels, and the exclusive Middle Bass Club, a summer community on the west side of the island last visited by four US presidents in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“Middle Bass used to be much more populated and had a lot more tourist activity,” said Roesch, a fourth-generation islander. “The whole story is here. We just didn’t have space to keep it.”
Mertz said design work on the house had just begun. She hopes construction will begin next year, with a possible completion in 2024.
In addition to the work at Middle Bass, the state also intends to restore two homes on nearby North Bass Island that will be available for public lodging for years to come.
North Bass, just north of Middle Bass, is even more remote than its sister Bass Islands – only accessible by private boat or plane. About half a dozen buildings were included in the state’s 2003 purchase of 598 acres, which makes up about 90% of the island’s total area. The state bought the land from Paramount, whose subsidiary, Meier’s Wine Cellars, farmed much of the island with grapes for most of the 20th century.
Mertz said the houses were in poor condition. “We had to make a decision — keep them and make them great, or tear them down,” she said.
The two houses – one on the northwest shore “with beautiful sunsets and a rocky beach” and the other on the east shore – date from the same period as the Lonz house, but are smaller.
In 2018, the state in North Bass restored and made available for sleepovers a large four-bedroom, six-bathroom Civil War-era home. The home is a popular retreat, Mertz said, and it’s time for the state to do more. “I want more people to enjoy it,” she said. “I always want more people to enjoy the finer things in Ohio.”
When you go: Middle Bass Island State Park
Miller Boat Line offers regular service to Middle Bass from mainland Ohio at its dock on Catawba Island. Middle Bass Island State Park is just steps from the dock. Information: millerferry.com
Transportation from Put-in-Bay to Middle Bass Island was difficult this summer as the Sonny S ferry was out of service for repairs. Inter-Island Charters offers inter-island service most days. Information: facebook.com/Inter-Island-Charters-104814898481510
Aboard the Mary Ann Market, Miller Boat Line’s newest, most elegant ferry to Put-in-Bay
The Lake House rental opens on remote North Bass Island in Lake Erie: an island (almost) all yours
Historic Lonz Winery Reopens as Centerpiece of Middle Bass Island State Park (Photos)