Looming on Washtenaw Avenue, surrounded by typically quaint homes, is a cavernous, Swiss chalet-style mansion that might fill a passerby on a dark night with a sense of dread.
If you were to guess the building’s purpose, you might think it was the headquarters of some clandestine, powerful society — or Ann Arbor’s own haunted mansion. But what the elaborate stonework and menagerie of shrubbery really contains is nothing so lurid. It’s the Vitosha Guest Haus Inn, the city’s most interesting hotel.
This imposing stone fortress is home to the Vitosha Guest Haus, as well as owner Kei Constantinov and family. Located just west of fraternity row on Washtenaw, Vitosha, named for ancestral connections to Bulgaria, is the brainchild of Kei Constantinov, an Indiana native and former art teacher.
Greeted by owner Kei Constantinov — and, most likely, her gigantic, snaggle-toothed Mastiff-mix named George — a visitor to the bed and breakfast is immediately dazzled by the strange, elaborate interior. Exposed ceiling beams combine with dark slate flooring to invoke a rustic but sophisticated lodge in the European countryside.
From a close examination of the décor, it is clear that Constantinov has thought about every detail: the Victorian literature in the bookcase, the Holtkamp pipe organ in the hall and the period furniture in every room. Even Constantinov herself adds to the ambience — with her rich dark red hair pulled into two braided buns, she composes herself like the grand dame of a manor frozen in time.
Constantinov’s fantasy time warp was years in the making. A former art teacher from Indiana, Constantinov purchased the manor 11 years ago after her husband was transferred from a New York art firm.
The 32-room inn has a long rich history — starting in 1917, when it was the home of Dean Meyer, a professor at the University’s medical school and Ann Arbor City Council member. Before the Constantinovs, a Unitarian church had used the property for services and office space, adding a chapel, parsonage and a few out houses. George Brigham, a modernist architect who taught at the University, designed the Unitarian sanctuary in 1956. And according to the Ann Arbor Historical District Commission, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright handedly approved of Brigham’s work.
But despite prestigious acclaim, Constantinov said the manor was a far cry from the living dollhouse it is today when she bought it. The Unitarians had left many of the interior rooms as plain as hospital rooms.
“When we purchased the place, the big house had been used as an office by the Unitarians and it seemed like the entire interior had been spray-painted white,” Constantinov said. “And there were absolutely no gardens around the place. It looked very stark.”
Constantinov renovated and landscaped the property for years before opening for business. After her English roses had flourished and each room had been exquisitely furnished, Constantinov set herself to creating an unforgettable experience for her guests. Visitors are treated to a china-laden breakfast and, if they come at the right time, a variety of entertainment.
“When guests come, I see they are immediately able to relax and sink it to their surroundings here,” Constantinov said. “It’s really about details and finding the time to establish these details that makes this place unique.”
Norbert Klusen, a visiting professor from the University of Hanover, sat with his 13-year-old daughter in the concert hall listening to the 1930s jazz stylings of Stolen Sweets. As is commonly the case with visitors to Vitosha Guest Haus, Klusen had chosen to stay there on the recommendation of his University contact. He was very happy that he had done so.
“I’ve been about thirty different states and this place definitely has a more European feel than many places we’ve stayed,” Klusen said. “Immediately when I walked in, it reminded me of a Scottish or English place.”
Constantinov’s concert hall will be busy this year with a new concert series hitting the stage featuring acts from the former Firefly Jazz club.
“Much of the music featured is along the lines of jazz, classical, and indie folk music,” she said. Tickets are sold prior to each performance.
But Constantinov’s vision for Vitosha Guest Haus doesn’t stop at a bed and breakfast with occasional entertainment. She wants to expand into the art world, making Vitosha a “cultural center with lodging.”
Right now, she is currently accepting residency applications from artists who she would allow to live at the inn for extended period, teaching workshops, exhibiting work and participating in panel discussions.
Constantinov’s plan to make Vitosha Guest Haus the creative hub of Ann Arbor is right in line with the character of the magnificent house, which has been a piece of art at every in its long, winding history.