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To the Manor Borrowed

In Baltimore, Be Mistress of a Country House -- For a Weekend

By Jennifer Barger
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 21, 2004; Page C02

Confession: I have a G-rated master-and-servant fantasy from watching way too much "Upstairs, Downstairs" and every episode of last year's PBS reality show "Manor House." In the latter, modern Brits moved into a grandiose estate and played at being either Edwardian-era gentry or overworked staff. The "servants" had a miserable time scrubbing floors and plucking chickens. But the lord and lady of the estate hobnobbed with other aristocrats at glorious parties, ate rich meals in swanky dining rooms and lounged about reading novels in well-decorated bedrooms. I wanted to sign up to be the mistress of the house next season, but it seemed doubtful they'd take a Yank whose closest claim to blue British blood is a serious "Masterpiece Theatre" habit.

So, to satisfy my craving for a little fin de siècle splendor, I decided to forget reality TV and go to Baltimore instead. Though now known more for grit than glitz, Baltimore is actually a fine place to spend a weekend in the Gilded Age-y -- thanks largely to the Gramercy Mansion, a 1902 country house-turned-inn 12 miles north of the city, and to the posh turn-of-the-(19th)-century downtown neighborhood of Mount Vernon.

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"This was the most fashionable place to live in the U.S., except New York City," said Lisa Keir, director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District. Residents who amassed fortunes in shipping or the railroad made their homes here in refined brownstones and over-the-top mansions. Today, many of these structures shelter restaurants and museums.

But first for that lady-of-the-house fetish. On a recent chilly Saturday, my husband, Callan, and I drove our horseless carriage, er VW, up the Gramercy Mansion's curvy drive to the black-oak-timbered, Tudor-style behemoth with steep chimneys and diamond-paned windows. Alexander Cassatt, a 19th-century railroad baron (and brother of painter Mary Cassatt) built the manse as a wedding present for his daughter Eliza and her husband, W. Plunkett Stewart.

Inside, the Gramercy looks like the setting for an Edith Wharton novel. Think cherry-paneled public rooms, mammoth fireplaces framed in art nouveau tiles, unusual antiques such as a player piano and a few stuffed mountain goats. "This place was in hunt country, so we thought they were appropriate," said Anne Pomykala, who owns the inn with her husband, Walter. The Gramercy's 45-acre grounds -- including an Olympic-size pool and statue-filled gardens -- added to the Old World glam.

"Because of our busy world, people like the idea of going back to a bygone era," said Pomykala, who purchased the Gramercy in 1985, renovated it thoroughly and opened it as a B&B in 1986. Last year, a two-story addition was built, bringing the mansion's size to a whopping 16,000 square feet and its guest room count to 11. Chambers range from comfortable (the small Toy Room in the former servants' wing) to downright baronial (the top-priced Camelot Room with lush, Renaissance decor and a Jacuzzi with a view of the woods). With its enormous rooms, ritzy decor and lovely architecture, the spot looked and felt more like a National Trust house than a typical country inn.

Pomykala checked us into the Ambassador's Room. Like most of the rooms, this one boasted upper-crusty creature comforts both old-fashioned (a pair of Gothic chairs, a wood-burning fireplace) and new-fangled (a jetted tub with a milkmaid sculpture showerhead, a scarlet and gold damask bedspread).

According to Pomykala, the Gramercy's staff includes six maids and five full-time innkeepers who run the B&B and assist in hosting the property's weddings and meetings. In warmer months, two gardeners tend the estate's lavish flower and herb gardens.

Some of those unseen hands -- finding good help is such a comfort -- had already filled our fireplace with wood, the mini-fridge (hidden in a French-style armoire) with wine and a vase on the dresser with roses. It didn't seem like too much labor for us to light a fire or make cocoa in china cups we found ready on a corner table.

We toyed with the idea of just staying in the room and lolling about -- there was even a book of old love poems to read. But even swells have to leave their estates sometimes, so we went for some period shopping on Baltimore's Antique Row, on North Howard Street. It claims to be Maryland's oldest antiques row.

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