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Bed Check: Philadelphia's phriendly Conwell Inn

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By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

At the Conwell Inn in Philadelphia, we are all first-name buddies.

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"I'm Shane," says the friendly young desk clerk who checks us in on a recent Sunday night. "And you're . . . Zofia?" (Correct pronunciation! Ten points right there.)

Later, "Hi, Shane!" calls a hotel guest, returning from a sodden stroll on a rainy, dismal day. And the next morning at breakfast: "Oh, Eric," halloos a woman across the small lobby to the genial fellow behind the desk. "Could I get the things Shane put in your refrigerator for me last night?"

This is the charm of the Conwell Inn, a hardworking little hotel on the edge of the Temple University campus that strives with every muscle to live up to the city's credo of brotherly love. "We do work hard to make your stay as comfortable as possible," reads a note from the general manager. "Thank you for choosing the Conwell Inn," chirp the cards sprinkled throughout the room. "We hate to see you go," laments the checkout reminder slipped under the door on departure day.

Positively brimming with congeniality. All in the name of self-promotion, of course, but with the many smiling faces, it sure seems sincere. And who can resist a little marketing sunshine on a gloomy winter visit to Philly?

Housed in three late-19th-century rowhouses that the Temple campus swallowed up (and used as frat houses in the 1960s), the 22-room inn bills itself as "historic," which is something of, well, shall we call it a stretch? The buildings are on the National Register, but the hotel itself opened in 2001, and though it's named for university founder Russell Conwell, it's operated by an independent company that specializes in "small, unique niche markets," said general manager Erin Fitzharris, the unique market here being, of course, university parents, faculty and visitors. But not just that captive clientele: The Conwell is happy to take your tourist dollars, too.

In fact, it was a Washington friend with no university connection who first told me about staying there. I thought it an odd choice, since Temple's North Philly site is still what you might politely call on the fringe. But it's also convenient -- two blocks and you're at the SEPTA (the Philly subway), which zips you straight downtown for $2 -- and in the summer high season, Fitzharris asserts, the hotel can offer better rates, especially on weekends, than the busy downtown properties. Plus there's that campus energy and liveliness thing that some people find so invigorating.

Ah, yes. On that, I'm of two minds. I confess I had some frat-house flashbacks when we headed to our room on the third floor, where I could hear the afternoon football game coming through loud and clear in the hallway from the TV next door. Uh-oh, I thought. But miraculously, all sound shut down when we entered our room, where everything was serene and pristine. The room itself was pleasant and pretty if nothing fancy (the Rittenhouse it's not), with all the standard appurtenances -- TV, coffeemaker, WiFi (just a wee bit slow) -- and a large, immaculate and brightly lit bathroom (but could that fan be any louder?). I liked the trash can for recycling and the eco-friendly paper -- yes, paper! -- shampoo and lotion containers.

My husband, on the other hand, was a little grumpy at the lack of an in-house bar (fair warning, it's not a full-service hotel, more like a B&B), but settled for the free afternoon tea (or coffee) and cookies in the lobby (someone's former living room, I thought, unrecognizable now) while Shane helpfully telephoned a nearby off-campus pub to see if it was open. It wasn't, so we made our way to the campus watering-hole, where a half-hour of not even trying to chat over the din reminded us why we're glad our college days are behind us.

But later, back in the room after dinner (at Osteria, a great restaurant just blocks down Broad Street), I glanced out the window, where the semi-spherical campus lights split the gloom like cartoon eyes in the dark. It was late, but people were still bustling and bicycling along the walks. In the corner of the frame, I caught the edge of the Gothic stone building across the way and suddenly flashed back to a different memory of long-ago college days. And I thought: Ah, yes.


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