For Lynn Varney, taking care of people has always been inherent, and in 2006, she made her hospitable nature into a career by taking over the Harrison House Bed & Breakfast.
“I sold everything I had to buy this place,” Varney said.
Following financial devastation in the wake of COVID-19, her guests are now returning the favor.
The six-bedroom Harrison House was originally built in 1890 in Columbus’ Victorian Village, according to the bed and breakfast’s website. Surviving events such as world wars, the women’s suffrage movement and the Great Depression, the Harrison House has taken on many roles, including being converted into a bed and breakfast in 1990. Now, under the ownership of Varney and the loyalty of its guests, Harrison House is facing another momentous event: COVID-19.
With the onset of the pandemic, from mid-March to the end of April of this year, Varney said she had no income. The bed and breakfast never shut down with the arrival of COVID-19, yet it still lost all its business because of the nationwide shutdown and travel restrictions, barring guests from visiting.
Even though Varney experienced a trickle of income as conditions slightly improved in May, she said her expenses didn’t go away, and despite cutting back on everything she possibly could, it still wasn’t enough.
Varney said she spent the summer applying for relief, grants, and other forms of city, state, and federal aid as business continued to struggle. In June, Varney said she realized her efforts weren’t enough and was forced to call a realtor about selling the bed and breakfast. On Aug. 15, the house was on the market.
“I called my realtor and said, ‘Ken, I gotta sell.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t sell. You gotta make it go.’ And I’m like, ‘How can I make it go? There’s no way to get business,’” Varney said.
All hope has not been lost, though.
One evening in early September as Varney was getting ready for bed, she said the idea to start a GoFundMe fundraiser for her business popped in her head.
Varney said she’d felt some guilt for the idea, so the next morning, she proposed it to her guests, who were nothing but supportive. She said her guests reassured her that not only was the idea unselfish, but also a very common thing for people in similar situations.
Varney published her campaign online Sept. 6, and as of Tuesday, she has raised over $12,000 between the website and donations via cash and check. Donations of up to $1,000 have been made, while others have donated multiple times, which Varney said has given her a sense of validation from her guests and of her impact on them.
“We’re trying to do what we can to keep her business afloat, and more importantly, to keep her in her home,” Ed Plunkett, a library associate for University Libraries, said.
Varney said her realtor, amazed by the campaign’s success, asked her how she accomplished it. Varney’s response was true to the innate characteristic she possesses for all her guests: compassion.
For Varney, her life has been changed by Harrison House guests as much as she’s impacted theirs. Between business travelers, family and friends of locals and the Ohio State community, Varney said she has hosted people from all over the globe.
“They just enrich my life. No matter what you do or who you are, I learn something from everybody who’s here,” Varney said.
Some guests have even said their vows at Harrison House, such as Plunkett, who tied the knot in the home’s backyard in 2009. Plunkett said his then-girlfriend became friends with Varney when his girlfriend visited Columbus for the first time and stayed at Harrison House. He said the couple eventually asked to use her backyard for their wedding.
“We filled up her place with [my wife’s] dad and sister, who arrived from Scotland, a few guests from all over, and one couple who had nothing to do with the wedding but hung out with us after the party,” Plunkett said.
Members of the Ohio State community leave a particularly long-lasting impression on Varney as she said she’s been able to watch students and their families grow and change over their college days while they stay at Harrison House.
“I get to know [parents and students], and I watch the children come in as children, and in four years mature and it’s amazing,” Varney said.
Sitting atop the piano in the house’s foyer are art prints Varney said she received as a gift from an Ohio State student’s parents after their visit from Beijing.
She said another guest — a professor visiting Ohio State from Italy — discussed his research creating surgical-grade diamonds in a microwave, a memory Varney is fond of.
Each guest that visits Harrison House, from visiting professors to university-held conference-goers, leaves a treasured memory, Varney said.
“I have learned so much about so many different things through the professors that have lived here,” Varney said.
Throughout her ownership of the house, Varney said she has relied heavily on the reservations of business travelers. Now, she’s concerned with the possibility of a permanent change in the dynamics of business, as more people work at home and travel less.
“I can’t make it on weekend reservations alone,” Varney said.
Between donations and the money she’s received from aids, grants and lines of credit, Varney will not have to sell her home — for now. Although the money to make up for lost income has been invaluable to her, Varney said that only reservations will save her business and others in her industry. For now, all she can do is hope that people can travel safely in the near future, especially to her home.
“For the people who are concerned [about safety during the pandemic], I would say, ‘You know, go out. A bed and breakfast is a smaller venue. You’re not going to run into as many people as places like hotels, and you can rest assure everyone will be courteous to you.’”
The Harrison House Bed and Breakfast is located at 313 W. Fifth Ave. Reservations can be made through the bed and breakfast’s website.