Bed Check: History and hospitality at Princeton's Inn at Glencairn

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

I waited up for Lord Ralston, a resident of the Inn at Glencairn, but the British patriot with the Casanova streak was a no-show. Ghosts are so unreliable.

I didn't need a spectral visitor, though, to remind me of the history beneath my feet and above my head. The inn near Princeton, N.J., is set in two time periods bridged by steps. Guests enter through the "newer" portion, a Georgian manor dating to 1760 and housing the four guest rooms, the dining room, a modern kitchen and the display of local art. The older section, reached through the parlor, contains the Great Room, a capacious social space with a 12-foot-wide cooking fireplace that could easily fit a rotisserie of wild boars. This stone wing dates to 1697, when popular interior design included doors on opposite sides of the room that allowed cooling winds and log-pulling horses to pass through. "Washington himself might be comfortable walking in," said resident manager Bob Riggs, explaining how the owners stayed true to the house's centuries-old style.

From Route 206, you'd never guess that a B&B resides on the four-acre lot shielded by thick greenery. The small welcome sign is completely missable, and the hilltop house is indistinguishable from its neighbors' refined residences. Entering the driveway, I secretly hoped that other motorists would notice my address and envy my good fortune.

That evening, I was the primary guest (at least in this material world), but Riggs told me that the inn frequently attracts travelers on the college/prep school circuit, including former Honduran president Ricardo Maduro and the real-life Clark Griswold. "I turned out Chevy Chase twice," lamented Riggs, due to a full house. If the comedian comes back to town, the Baldwin Suite is ready for him.

Riggs, a former professional chef, prides himself on his morning dishes. "I like larger breakfasts and playing around with cuisine from the Pacific Northwest," said the former Oregon resident. Guests can start their day with Finnish oven pancakes with berry sauce, flaxseed waffles or an egg bake prepared with yogurt, cheese and a slice of tomato or Canadian bacon. For my meal-on-the-go, Riggs packed up a fruit smoothie and a succulent baked pear.

Despite the gourmet cuisine and modern amenities -- flat-screen TVs, free WiFi, guest fridge, etc. -- it's easy to slip back in time. The little stone structure near the parking lot, for instance, reminds guests of cooking pre-George Foreman: The initial owners used the now-defunct smokehouse to cure venison, pig and other proteins. The 200-year-old red barn fell into disrepair and was replaced in the 1970s, when three men bought the property and set about renovating things. To track down a structure that would match the dimensions of the old barn, they scoured the region -- by hot-air balloon -- then held a barn-raising with their find.

During an earlier renovation of the house, workers had discovered bloodstains supposedly spilled by Lord Ralston on an upstairs floor. According to lore, British forces used the house as a Hessian hospital during the Revolutionary War. Ralston, an officer stationed there, was known as an insufferable womanizer, and after an evening of wenching, he attracted the unwanted attention of some enraged men. He tried to escape through a hidden stairway but was caught and bayoneted to death, his wound dripping on the wooden floorboards.

Ralston allegedly haunts the premises, but he is not an equal opportunity ghost. It's said that "the only people who experience his spirit are women," Riggs, who has never seen or heard Ralston, told me.

I was the right gender, but I guess the lord was otherwise entertained during my stay.

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