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Vintage Merced mansion transformed into stately inn

Since she was a little girl, Melinda Stewart has always been fascinated with the big white two-story house on M Street near Bear Creek in Merced. Now she owns the stately1936-vintage mansion with her sister Jana and offers guests a glimpse back in time.

The Stewarts have operated Bear Creek Inn, the Hooper House, a bed and breakfast establishment since they bought it in 2014 from the Jack Hooper estate. They have visions of expanding the 5,000-square-foot and home grounds into more of an event center.

Open all year round, Bear Creek Inn has five guest rooms and mixes modern amenities with vintage touches like a spiral staircase and skylight, wooden floors throughout, original architectural touches and hexagonal-shaped white and black floor tiles in the bathrooms.

Manager Jessica Egli says the house and its two acres exudes a special charm. She has been one of the three innkeepers since September 2015 and works hard to make its guests feel special and welcome.

“It just becomes part of your heart and soul,” Egli says. “It’s just a home away from home; (guests) bring their family back. They become part of our family, they really do. They are part of me.”

Melinda Stewart, now a retired Superior Court judge, remembers gazing at the Colonial-style C. Ray Robinson home as a child and finding it mysterious and intriguing. Her sister Jana was bold enough to jump the fence years ago and do some exploring on her own. They are only the fourth owners of the landmark residence.

Jana Stewart says they had never operated a bed and breakfast inn before but just had to buy it and keep it going, preserving its antebellum charm. It sits on the site of the Charles Henry Huffman mansion which was built in 1882 and burned to the ground in a Jan. 11, 1933 fire. The first home is reminiscent of the McHenry Mansion in downtown Modesto.

The majority of Bear Creek Inn guests are business travelers affiliated with the UC Merced campus a few miles north. They include guest speakers, visiting professors and researchers, traveling doctors, some celebrities, job candidates and people on their way to visit Yosemite National Park.

“We just heard it was for sale and decided it was a good time to save this house,” Jana Stewart says. “It’s sort of like going into the past which is hard to do. We tried to keep the décor as it was, like the old days. People come in and they leave the world out there.”

Melinda Stewart credits Hooper, who died in 2013, with the yeoman efforts to bring the home back from neglect. Robinson, a prominent Merced attorney and former state legislator, died in 1974 and the home was willed to the Dominican Sisters who operated Mercy Hospital, then located just across the creek from the home.

Jana Stewart says it would be wonderful to open the inn up to more community events, including teas, wedding showers and receptions, retirement parties and other social events. She hopes it can become an event center but wants to make sure they can provide good service before it is launched.

“It has lots of great possibilities in time,” Jana Stewart says. “We can really grow, and do all age groups. It will be wonderful.”

There are three guest rooms or suites upstairs, which offer a sitting area, desks, fireplaces, private bathrooms and WiFi Internet connections.

The master suite, the RA Paula Room, has a four-poster king bed, private restrooms and private balcony. The adjoining Yellow Room has distinctive crown molding around its ceiling, a settee and an old-fashioned writing desk, along with a wrought-iron bed. The sitting room has an antique roll top desk.

The Blue Room has a separate, attached sitting room, with whitewashed pine walls. At some point in the past it probably was a playroom for the Robinson family youngsters.

Downstairs, there is a garden room with windows on all sides, along with a fireplace. The dining room seats 12 guests and there is a separate breakfast nook for smaller groups. There is a button on the floor in the breakfast nook where family members could summon servants for special requests years ago.

A nearby butler’s pantry now is stocked with snacks and refreshments for the guests. A gourmet breakfast is offered for all guests.

Egli says the garden has 41 trees, many of them fruit-bearing and several of the towering palm trees have been there since the Huffman days. The nearby cottage has a full kitchen and often hosts families during their Yosemite visits. The buggy house next to the main residence is handicap-accessible. The outside buildings are pet-friendly for small dogs.

“We want this whole place to hug you and make you feel welcome,” Egli says. “One of the things the guests love in the great room is the game table where they can play checkers or chess. The whole process is meant to be friendly, warm and inviting.”

The guest book in the home’s entryway boasts of visitors from Italy, Germany, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, South Africa, Mexico, Vatican City, New Delhi, England, France, Israel, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Egli says she has redone the Bear Creek Inn’s website and has a social media presence, including Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. The inn also is listed on online travel sites.

“A lot of our travelers like the history, openness and warmness of the inn,” Egli says.

For more information on the Bear Creek Inn, at 575 N. Bear Creek Drive, call Egli at (209) 723-3991.

Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.