Everyone has the same reaction upon stepping inside Ringling House Bed & Breakfast: They stand frozen, mouth agape, and gasp.

It was this awestruck sensation that prompted Stuart Koehler and Julie Hearley to bust their budget and buy a Baraboo mansion. “We were just like our guests: We walked in and our jaws dropped,” he said.

The couple bought the former Charles Ringling home on Eighth Street from Ringling descendants Kate and Charles Clayton-Jones last year. After several months of work, Koehler and Hearley opened it as a B&B this summer.

Hearley, a former computer programmer; and Koehler, a former business manager; were looking to leave Madison and open a B&B in a small town. The Ringling home seemed an unlikely landing spot for the couple: First of all, its listed price of $1.25 million was beyond their budget. Secondly, there was already an offer on the place.

But after that deal fell through, the couple made their own offer in September. By December, they had city approval to operate a business inside the home. Ringling House B&B opened July 10, offering rooms at rates ranging from $120 to $235 per night.

Four rooms are available for rent – that is, not counting the one Koehler and Hearley use. They bounce from room to room to accommodate guests. “We’re kind of vagabonds in our own house,” he said. “We travel light.”

Major project

When renovations are complete, there will be six rooms available, and the couple will live on the third floor.

In hopes of opening by Memorial Day weekend, the couple tackled an ambitious list of projects that included rewiring the home, upgrading its plumbing, adding three bathrooms, installing a new water heater and repainting. They missed their target date, but opened in time for the Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration in July.

“You just find more and more stuff you’ve got to do,” Koehler said.

Their challenge was to preserve the vintage charms of the 1901 home – it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places – while adding modern conveniences. Hence the addition of bathrooms and electrical outlets: Guests want to see antiques and Ringling relics, but they also want to charge their tablets overnight.

“We want to preserve the place as much as possible, but we have to make some changes to accommodate the guests,” Hearley said.

About the home

The Colonial Revival house was built by one of the five Ringling brothers who launched a world-renowned circus from their hometown of Baraboo. Built at what was then the edge of town but now occupying most of a city block, the property includes the three-story, 6,400 square-foot main house, a carriage house, a cottage and a barn.

Ringling descendants lived in the home until the death of Sally Clayton-Jones — mother of the siblings who sold the property to Koehler and Hearley — in 2005. In more recent years, it became a rental home and was used as a day care center. The cottage and carriage house continue to be rented. In time, the new owners hope to use those buildings for guest rooms and an event center.

While the home retains some eye-grabbing original features – a Steinway piano in the parlor, stained glass in the library – it had fallen into disrepair. Friends and family helped paint and put up wallpaper. Wiring and plumbing work was hired out. Local historian and carpenter Paul Wolter is repairing a leaky front porch.

“People are pretty amazed at how far we’ve gotten so far,” Hearley said. “It was a big group effort.”

What’s next?

There is more to do, of course. Four fireplaces will turned into gas or electric fixtures. A fourth new bathroom remains to be installed. And any house with 58 windows will require significant upkeep.

“Things are getting better and easier as we go, as you learn things,” Hearley said.

She loves to cook, and he – as a former apartment manager – is handy around the house, so they feel equipped to give the home the care it needs. “We make a pretty good team,” Koehler said.