By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 11:57 AM
At the Madison Hotel in Morristown, N.J., everyone's a winner.
At least that's what I concluded after asking the front desk clerk who'd won the previous evening's raffle.
"You did," he told me, without even looking at the number on the ticket I'd been handed when I'd checked in the night before.
He offered me one of four prizes: a candle, a beer mug, a USB flash drive or a stuffed animal (a lion, a tiger or a bear? I couldn't tell from afar).
What a way to make a girl feel special.
Actually, though, I did feel kind of special at the Madison, even if the clerk was giving me a prize just for asking. The Madison is quite the gem, tucked away in this quaint town of 19,000 that's better known as the "military capital of the American Revolution." Who knew that just an hour's train ride from midtown Manhattan you can take in American history and enjoy a stay at this elegant, 30-year-old Georgian-style hotel?
Apparently, some of the East Coast's wealthiest and most influential citizens had discovered what Morristown had to offer by the middle of the 19th century. The town became their own little colony, a place they could escape to on weekends. Families such as the Rockefellers began traveling to what was then considered "the country" in 1849, when rail service out of New York became efficient. Madison Avenue, where the Madison Hotel is located, became known as "Millionaire's Row" because some of New York's richest families built their summer mansions there.
The elegance of the Gilded Age is what inspired restaurateur Rod Keller Sr. and architect WalterPfeiffer to design and build the Madison, which opened in 1981. They traveled more than 10,000 miles to collect Victorian antiques to furnish the building.
Everything about the Madison is grand. A clock tower rises above the front entrance. The mahogany mantel that's the focal point of the lobby is one of only a handful of such pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The ornate bar near the ballroom was constructed from pieces of late-19th-century English pub bars. A 4,000-square-foot ballroom sports massive antique chandeliers.
The hotel restaurant, Rod's Steak and Seafood Grille, which preceded the hotel by 30 years, is likewise filled with antiques. The stained-glass skylight, purchased from a farmer in Pennsylvania and handcrafted more than 100 years ago, was originally part of the ceiling of a famous Pittsburgh bank. The chandelier was saved from the Elks Lodge in Elizabeth, N.J., just moments before the building was demolished, according to a printed hotel history. The antique stairwells that lead to the second floor were once part of the Beaver Estate at Beaver College (now known as Arcadia University). The mirrored buffet at the top of the main staircase was a soda fountain in Utica, N.Y. And, says the hotel literature, the jeweled glass panel next to the main bar "once graced the foyer of an infamous Denver, Colorado, house of ill repute."
My favorite pieces were the two antique parlor cars adjoining the main dining room. Believed to have been owned by department-store magnate John Wanamaker and legendary 19th-century financier Jay Gould, they've been restored and converted into a dining room. Unfortunately, it looked too cozy and romantic for a solo diner like me, so I opted for a drink at the bar instead. I felt a bit like a party-crasher, because the place was jammed with wedding and engagement-party guests watching a football game. (There were so many celebrations going on in the party rooms that night that I lost count of them all.)
Unfortunately, my room wasn't quite as grand as the public spaces. With its beige wallpaper, floral curtains and old-fashioned TV, it betrayed the hotel's age. But the weathered look also makes the place feel homey. And the service is as polite and old-fashioned as you can get. Oatmeal cookies and hot apple cider wait for guests at the check-in desk. Coffee and tea are served all day long in the lobby, which also hosts an elaborate continental breakfast in the morning and, with its overstuffed sofas and chairs, has the air of a living room. After breakfast, I sat among the hung-over wedding guests and took my time drinking my coffee and reading the newspaper.
Morristown's Madison Avenue may not be Millionaire's Row anymore, but at the Madison Hotel, you'll still feel like a winner.