Bed Check: Washington's Mansion on O

By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 1:59 PM

My dream came true at the Mansion on O.

You know the dream. You've had it yourself, I'll bet. You go into a house - maybe a house you once lived in, maybe just a house you've conjured up in your sleep - and walk from room to room. And as you turn a familiar corner, an unexpected chamber suddenly appears, and then beyond it another, and another. All at once, corridors are snaking everywhere and doors lead to hidden hallways, and at every turn a remarkable new room blossoms open before your astonished eyes.

"Oh, my gosh, I never knew that room was there," you say to yourself, thrilling to the possibilities of so much space, such glorious expansion. Why, yours is no ordinary house. It's a mansion!

That's my dream, but it's also the weird and whimsical reality at the Mansion on O, the private club and hotel that for nearly 31 years has beckoned mysteriously from a row of brooding townhouses on a tree-lined Dupont Circle block. I'd visited the bizarre 100-room wonderland before, along with dozens of other wishful peepers to whom the mansion regularly opens its doors, and wandered through the crazy quilt of themed suites and secret doors and chandelier-laden salons. But on this Sunday afternoon I'm living inside the dream, riding in a black-painted elevator (angel etching on one mirrored wall; angels and mirrors, call them motifs) up to the guest room where we'll be spending the night.

The mystery - the mansion's all about mystery - is, which room? Each one is different. You can request a specific one, but if somebody beats you to the punch, you lose. (Well, not really. You can't lose at the mansion.) We've asked for the ocean-liner-themed Stateroom (hidden entrance; how could I resist?), but Hilary, the cheerfully welcoming young woman checking us in, has already informed us that we'll be choosing between two rooms, so I'm guessing that beaten we have been. Sigh. A tiny bubble bursts in the dream.

We check out the Safari Room (also behind a secret door!). It's a striking chamber, no denying, swathed in black (black is big here, which is perhaps why it makes some people think of Harry Potter and others of "The Twilight Zone") with a tentlike feel and all the African-inspired accouterments you might imagine. But I'm not really an elephant-tusk and leopard-print kind of gal, so we head up one flight along a mazelike route - where are my bread crumbs? - to the Garden Room, which is colorful and flowery and brighter than many of the mansion's spaces. The ceiling is painted to look like a pink-clouded sky, with a bumblebee hovering in one corner. There's a lovely floral-look crystal chandelier and a king-size bed with a carved headboard. Mounted high on the wall are not one, but three TVs. (After dinner, my husband checks out some football while I watch "Masterpiece" on PBS. Wonder who that third set is for?)

Best of all, the Garden is listed on the Web site as a $450-a-night room, but we are paying $350. We know, because that's what we requested, and the mansion charges a one-night nonrefundable deposit the minute you make your reservation. That made my husband grumpy at the time, but now I'm thinking, the dream's alive! (And yes, it's pricey, but do it at least once if you can.)

Hilary hands us our "cheat sheet," a card with the name of our room and our personal secret code for re-entering the mansion should we wish to go out for the evening, though already at this stage I'm wondering why I would want to do that. Also on it is the hotel's knockoff motto: "What happens at The Mansion stays at The Mansion." In other words, they won't let anybody know you're here! If someone calls and asks for you and doesn't know what room you're in, the staff will deny ever having heard your name. I admire the privacy-preserving motive (and I'm sure the celebs who stay here really do), but it seems a bit quaint in this always-in-touch cellphone age. My husband and I joke about our "assignation." And how perhaps this explains why some people might need that third TV. Ba-da-bum.

Before dinner, we get lost on our way to the bar and keep bumping into stray people wandering around on the mansion treasure hunt, searching for angels dancing around a maypole and a patriotic musical bear and other details that you are challenged to espy among the millions of paintings and tchotchkes. Okay, maybe not millions, but thousands, for sure. Things cover nearly every surface. There supposedly are more than 20,000 books alone. And everything's for sale, except, I eventually learn, for the many signed guitars, such as the Bob Dylan one in our room (which explains why it was literally priceless). My husband stops me from indulging my obsession with rescuing all the world's books, but it's comforting to know that the mansion is doing the job for me.

Of course, all this stuff can threaten to turn the dream into a nightmare. "I just can't look anymore," moans one woman, poking through a loaded table in a hidden hallway. Then she keeps right on looking. And think of the cleaning! But hey, I don't have to do it, and somehow all those stuffed animals and hats and marionettes and knickknacks, placed just so, create an enveloping mood, as do the inn's dark colors, refracted in the shimmering chandeliers hanging everywhere - as many as 13 from a single ceiling.

People are hanging around everywhere, too. It's Sunday teatime, and a group of young women in plastic tiaras is celebrating a birthday. Couples pose beneath the gorgeous glittering monster chandelier in the front parlor (which like all the rooms probably has a name, but darned if I know what it is).

"The house is yours," declares Steve, the young man who mixes our martinis and instructs us to enjoy them anywhere we like, but really, it isn't.

Not until dinner, anyway. At last we have a room other than our guest room to ourselves. That would be the Amnesia Room, so-called because it's where guests often are brought to wait for check-in, says our chef, Antoine. In this womblike red-and-black chamber, they begin to forget about the outside world as the mansion starts to cast its spell.

Which I confess I'm pretty much under. I'm swooning over a red-and-black-shaded lamp that I think I might have to buy. Dinner - beef tenderloin for me, salmon for my husband - is marvelous. Whew. We'd worried, because the mansion's eye-popping but dreamily vague Web site isn't clear about meals. Could we dine there? Yes, if we were guests. (The only public dinner is on Mondays.) But there's no menu. Simply "let us know what you want to eat," said the e-mail from mansion president Ted Spero, husband of the near-legendary founder, H.H. Leonards, and the chefs would whip up something special. We were stressed about not having specific choices, but once again, the mansion - not to mention Antoine - has worked its magic.

Later that night, I steal out into the hallway and creep up and down the staircases, listening to the silence. The doors to some rooms and suites are open, but more than before are closed. So there are other guests, but who are they? The mansion's many mirrors send my reflection back at me, but nobody else appears.

The house is mine.

And it's still ours the next morning. In the fourth-floor guest kitchen, we're the only ones to appear for breakfast, and there's no sign that anyone else has been around ahead of us. The coffeepot is full, the fruit tray in the fridge untouched. No one has cooked an omelet in the pan set out on the stove or used any of the place settings on the table. We serve ourselves and munch away, but nobody else shows up. On the way out, I finally succumb to the mansion's flea market lure and pick up a $5 platter that, incredibly, matches an incomplete set of china my mother gave me years ago.

Before we check out, we take one more swing through the corridors and stroll through the open suites, trying to absorb the atmosphere. I'm in a small room off the main stairway, scanning another shelf crammed with books, when out of the corner of my eye I notice an open door that had been closed before.

Oh, wait. I didn't know this room was here, I think as I step inside it. And, oh. Look. There's another one beyond it. And another past that, and another, and another. . . .

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