BACK IN THE old days, circa 1971, I was hunting desparately for a place to stay in Colorado Springs. I had an ailing wife and an infant son, and every motel sign in sight shined, "No Vacancy." Finally, I found us a place to stay. For $5, we got a cabin without bathroom or sink but with a bed and a picture of Jesus above the headboard. My wife gazed at the benign image and said, "I understand you heal people." The next day, she felt better. We moved on.
Nowadays, our needs and wants have changed considerably. We still travel, stopping for the night on the way to somewhere else. But we have also discovered that what used to serve as mere way stations have become perfectly plausible places in which to end up and stay a while.
This discovery has been immeasurably aided by the evolution of the hotel industry. We have, in effect come full circle. The travelers inn served its purpose for centuries. The 20th century brought the motor court, a collection of modest cabins like the one we found in Colorado. As American grew in affluence and mobility, the motor court became the motel. Radios and room phones were big attractions. Then came outdoor pools and television. As time went by, color television replaced black and white.
Plain old color television was no lure when Home Box Office and in-room movies came of age. Outdoor pools paled next to the heated indoor kind, often accompanied by Jacuzzi, saunas, exercise and videogame rooms and even shuffleboard and miniature golf. How had we ever managed otherwise? And just when it seemed there was nothing left, no option untouched, they went ahed and reinvented the old inn.
So it was that, on a late Friday afternood, we left our now 12-year-old son at a friend's for the weekend and headed out I-270. Out destination was a place at once close and far away from the cares and crowds of the city. Our plan was to stay at an old inn the first night, a new one the second. It would be as sharp a contrast as could be found in the brave new world of the weekend escape.
One way to get to bed-and-breakfast Spring Bank Farm Inn, we learned after we'd arrived, is to turn right from M Street onto Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown and keep going until the next to last house. Route 355, which Wisconsin becomes, ends 50 miles later on the north side of Frederick where it turns smack into U.S. 15. Just shy of that dual highway heading up toward Gettysburg is the imposing mansion built in 1880 by George Houck, a banker's son who seemingly dedicated his life to self-indulgence.
The Houck house two years ago became an inn, or at least part of it did. Restoring the 19-room, three-story structure to its former state is a long-term project, on which Beverly and Ray Compton have only begun. Eventually, the couple hopes to have eight rooms to rent in all their Victorian splendor. Right now they've got three. A stay at the inn proves the new rule of thumb in the old hostelry business: a places like the Compton's, less is more.
What distinguishes the old-fashioned inn, from the new is personalized service, setting and style. Without the Comptons, the Spring Bank Inn would be just another elegant old house. With them, it is a memorable experience in which the host and hostess play an important role. It is clear they care about their guests, and that the feelings often are mutual. "Thanks for sharing this beautiful house with us," a Charlottesville, Va., honeymoon couple wrote in the guest book, appropriately an old journal, whose first entry is dated Sept. 5, 1981. Several wrote that they planned to return to see how much farther the Comptons' restoration had progressed in a year or two.
The rooms currently in use are on the first floor. They are filled with period pieces -- large Victorian beds, dressers, gilded mirrors and chairs -- the Comptoms have acquired at antique auctions they regularly attend. In almost every room are fireplaces, althouh most have been sealed off. On our mantle piece were old copies of 19th-century novels, such as "David Copperfield." The painted ceilings had been restored recently to their original splendor.
Our room, the only one with its own bathroom, had been the dining room before a 1920s renovation. The front bedroom, which was vacant the night we stayed, had been used for billiards. The back bedroom, known as "the Chippendale room," is where the Comptons sleep when it is not rented, as it was where we were there to a Baltimore couple. Down the hall are two bathrooms. Bed and breakfast, depending on the room, is $55 or $60 on weekends, five dollars less Sundays through Thursdays.
Dinner is not served at the inn. We were perfectly happy to dine in town at The Province, a restaurant of high quality and moderate prices by Washington standards. We returned to Spring Bank for an evening of conversation with the Comptons that lasted until midnight. Their double living room-parlor, with its 12-foot ceilings, working fireplace and library, is a perfect place to talk or simply to sit and read.
Among the books in their extensive collection, Sharfs' 1882 "History of Western Maryland" describes the house itself as "one of the finest and most costly in Frederick County. It is red-brick structure . . . set in the midst of expensive and well-kept grounds, and affording from its observatory a magnificent view of Federick Valley, the Catoctin Range, Sugar Loaf Moutain and South Mountain. it is supposed that on a clear day the eye may reach from the elevation mentioned to a distance of at least 40 miles up and down the valley."
Spring Bank Farm, of which the Comptons are the third owners, sits on 10 1/2 acres, all that's left of the 206 bequeathed to George Houck by his father, who similarly provided for his two other sons on adjoining land. Ray Compton, who directed aerospace and marine science programs in the District schools, first saw the place with a "For Sale" sign during a weekend bicycle trip in 1979.
Soon afterwards, the Comptons sold their house in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring and bought the old mansion for around $130,000. Ray Compton, 40, left the D.C. schools to devote full-time to the inn. Beverly, 39, continues to commute to her job with the U.S. Public Health Service in Rockville four days a week.
They say the house is haunted. They have never seen the ghost, assumed to be Tillie, a Houck daughter who died here at the age of 32, but they say others have. She is said to inhabit an upstairs room otherwise used for storage. Her spirit is benign.
We didn't see Tillie. Nor did we feel her presence during our stay. The loud hissing of the old steam radiators (of which there are 32 throughout the house) managed to block out any ghostly sounds, along with the truck noise form nearby U.S. 15. We awoke with the sun streaming through the uncurtained top half of our eastward facing windows.
Before retiring, the Comptons had asked when he wanted breakfast served in our room. We chose 10, an unheard of hour for anyone with children.
Breakfast in the window-side bedroom breakfast nook was coffee and tea, tasty vanilla nut bread and fresh fruit salad, decoratively arranged in its container. Real silver and linen napkins were the order of the day. Also with breakfast came the local Frederick Post, a daily with a strong sense of its old farm and new commuter communities.
Both the panorama noted in Scharf's 19th-century history and the modern town houses that have sprung up in recent years can be seen from the mansion's belvedere, a one-room affair above the third-floor attic. A town house developer, Amber Meadows, rose rapidly across Route 15, Ray Compton said, marring their formerly unspoiled view of the mountains. There are plans, too, for an industrial park nearby. Spring Bank Farm Inn is buffered, however, by its 18-inch brick walls, by four rows of 51 pine trees and by the land around it. With the shutters closed, the house could maintain its Age of Enterprise ambiance whatever the surroundings.
Across town the ambiance at the 154-room Sheraton could not have been more different. Here, hard by I-270 was bottom-line, corporate best. The Crown-American Corp., which owns four Sheratons and four Holiday Inns in Maryland and Pennsylvania, has created an array of escape packages to fill their rooms during otherwise slack times.
We had signed up for the overnight "Deluxe Funbreak," Crown American's winter weekend plan that includes drinks, dinner, breakfast, a poolside or "King Size" room and "use of all facilities." Total price tag, including tax and tips came to $87. The motel also offers year-round honeymoon and anniversary deals, and seasonal packages for Shenandoah River rafters. Honeymooners get a split of champagne and "his" and "hers" blue T-shirts that say, "We spent our Honeymoon Funbreak at a crown american inn."
We shared the Sheraton with three honeymooning couples, nine others on the "Deluxe Funbreak," about 20 or so more on the regular "Funbreak" (discounted room without meals), a host of walk-in customers and convention-goers. The place was packed.
The poolside rooms were all gone, reserved months in advance by Parents Without Partners, numbering 134 adults with 34 youngsters, who filled the indoor pool and Jacuzzi during much of our stay. All of them seemed to have a wonderful time. The grownups had a luncheon, where they were seated by zodiac sign; a dinner, where they divided among hobby lines; and a "Roaring 20s" dance, which coordinator Jane Rippeon declared a roaring success.
Spring Bank was mostly for grownups. The Sheraton, however, seemed an escape made for families and kids, with miniature golf and table tennis almost as popular as the pool. Only the sauna was largely unused. We could envision our son loving every minute of it, while his parents with partners enjoyed the apartness with defined limits. We'd been there, in such memorable spots as the Grantsville, Mo., Holiday Inn and the Westlake, Ohio, Sheraton. Only this one was closer to home.
By chain standards, the food was good. The dinner salad bar was exceptional. A piano player ran through all the old standards, beginning, with "As Time Goes By." Rick's Cafe this was not, despite the Casablanca-style ceiling fans, but it was pleasant enough.
Our room was all bed -- king-sized with six pillows. A digital alarm clock and two bedside lamps were permantly afixed to nightstands.
We slept later Sunday than Saturday, and, instead of having breakfast served to us in our room, we wound our way around the hotel corridors to what the brochure calls "a lush tropical courtyard, accented with a romantic gazebo" for a buffet breakfast. Suffice it to say that breakfast was ample and to my liking.
If Spring Bank Farm Inn offered authentic atomosphere, the Sheraton was suffused with plastic. No porcelain sink and tub here. Even our blanket was synthetic. Amid all that was ersatz, however, were fresh table flowers at both breakfast and dinner.
Following a decent interval after breakfast, we sweated in the sauna, swam in the pool and sat in the Jacuzzi with two teeny boppers and their tape deck. I dragged my reluctant mate on to the miniature golf course where she swears she sunk the ball in the clown's mouth on the last hole.
Our "Funbreak" check-out was at 2 p.m., two hours later than normal. By then, the pool and Jacuzzi were almost empty, a prime time for grownups to jump in. But by then, we had already jumped out.
Outside it was a beautiful still Sunday. The mountains loomed straight ahead, an old white farmhouse with a red barn in the foreground. To the right, the Francis Scott Key Mall parking lot was almost empty. Off to one side was the familiar red roof of a Pizza Hut on Route 355, the other road to Spring Bank, or Washington depending on your direct. We took the back road home.