NIAGARA FALLS – Virginia Celenza is not the kind of person to just sit down and take it easy. At 80-plus years old, she admits she is taking it a bit more slowly – but you would never know.
For Celenza and her late husband, Joseph, who died last year, retirement meant opening their own bed and breakfast. That was 25 years ago.
“Most people only do it for about five years,” she said.
Celenza said they wanted their house to be a home away from home for visitors. She said she loves to meet new people who travel from across the country and around the world to stay with her.
Her home holds a lot of memories. She was raised in it and, after buying it from her parents, raised her own family in it.
It also has its own history, with a spot on the National Historic Register.
Known as the Holley-Rankine house, the charming Gothic Revival cottage at 525 Riverside Drive in Niagara Falls was built in 1855 by George Washington Holley. After his death, it became the home of William B. Rankine, who was largely responsible for constructing the Adams Power Plant. The stone cottage has the look of a simpler time, but inside the appointments are lush, with a grand piano, wall tapestries, fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, marble busts, antique furniture and, of course, Celenza’s meticulous window treatments.
“I owned Virginia’s Draperies,” she said. “I did most of the hotels in this city. For 50 years I was doing that, making most of the draperies.”
The house is just steps from Niagara Falls State Park and sits at the edge of the Robert Moses Parkway, which her daughter, Valerie, said keeps her mother running from room to room to watch the progress on the revitalization. She has three sons as well, Perry, Joseph Jr. and John.
Is it a good sign that they are doing all this work on the Robert Moses?
It’s excellent, excellent. The berm there (which is being whittled away during construction) cut off the view of the river. When I came here to live in the 1940s, the river was across the street. When they built the new power company, they didn’t know what to do with the fill, so they brought it here and made (the berm) bigger. Now they are taking it out.
When did your family first come to this house?
My mother found this house in 1946.
How did your mom decide to buy a historic house like this?
My mother was the smartest woman I ever knew. She was a businesswoman. We were all crowded into one little house. I had four brothers and I was the only girl. My father said, “We gotta get a house because Virginia is sleeping in the dining room.” He told my mother to go buy a house. Instead of buying a house she bought a building with three stores and five apartments, so that’s where we moved. We had nine rooms.
Your parents, Joseph and Catherine Costanzo, what did they do for a living?
They had a liquor store. My mother went back to college and got her real estate license. She was selling half of Niagara Falls. My dad used to be a deputy sheriff, but he wanted to own his own store and you couldn’t do both. So for 25 years he had the liquor store. We lived above the store.
But that wasn’t this house.
When my brothers left and went into the service, my father told her, “Would you go buy a real house.” That’s when she found this one. … This had been empty for three years. The Carborundum Co. owned this place. The president of the company lived in this place, but he was transferred so the building sat empty.
Was it in pretty good shape?
Excellent. Whoever lived here was very affluent. All the woodwork is red oak. They all had maids and a lot of parties. …
Did your parents make this into a bed and breakfast?
No they just lived here. My mother was cautious. She would never have opened a bed and breakfast – never, because she wasn’t sure of people. You have to trust people. My father was just the opposite, he was very trusting. I bought this house from them in 1975, because my dad said, “You need more room.” I was sewing in the basement of my other house on 84th Street.
I was a good seamstress, that’s what got me into the decorating business.
What got you into the bed and breakfast business?
My son Joseph had left and my husband had retired. I was managing a decorating studio. I said, “Why don’t we just stay home. We’re old enough to retire.”
So that’s how you retire, open a bed and breakfast?
Yes. My husband had retired as the social director for the Niagara Falls Boys Club. When he retired I hired him for my shipping and receiving man at the decorating studio. I said, “This is crazy. Let’s just go home.”
You’ve really made this into a show house.
I did interior decorating all my life. I had people who could do things, the best upholsters and wood refinishers. Somebody would have thrown this (antique loveseat) away, but my husband and I gutted it and even threw the springs away. My wood repairman redid it and my upholster put the springs back in and recovered it. There were no lights on the ceiling, but I had a leak in my bathroom – I’m a great one to say, “Bust it open and get it fixed.” So when we did that, there was a power box up there. I wanted to put in a chandelier. An electrician said there were two more power boxes up there.
You have beautiful chandeliers throughout the house. Where did they come from?
The American Legion Portage Post on Veterans Drive had about a hundred. They tore it down and sold all the fixtures. So I got a hold of six of these. They are the babies of the one I have in the dining room. I had one converted to a swag lamp in the front hall.
When was this registered as a historic house?
In the early 1970s the state approached my mother to register the house. Things were happening in Niagara Falls and she didn’t want this house to ever be condemned or standing in the way of progress. After we came in, in 1976 I got a call from the University at Buffalo who said the house could be registered on the national level. I invited him to come and he said, “Oh my God, definitely,” and he put this on the national register right away.
Have you ever thought of actually retiring?
Yes. But they would have to be the right person before I would let it go. If somebody did buy (this house), I could come over here and have a part-time job.
email: firstname.lastname@example.org Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email email@example.com.