Old inns aren't always the most comfortable places to stay. Any building that's been around for a century or two is apt to show its age in many small ways: a door that doesn't shut properly, a creaky floor with a decided tilt to it, a cramped bathroom tucked belatedly beneath a stairwell.
On the other hand, some of the creakiest inns -- still fine lodging establishments -- have been witness over the years to a lot of local history. When you can stay in an inn where the Marquis de Lafayette is said to have been entertained, as we did recently in Leesburg, it is easy to overlook the flaws. The plumbing may work more efficiently in a spiffy new Ramada Inn, but Lafayette never slept in one.
The history-rich Washington area abounds in inns with a historic significance. They may be inns of long standing that have served generations of travelers or newer inns occupying important old structures. In either case, they usually are filled with authentic antiques, and they probably sit amid a landscape dotted with other prominent historical sites. To spend a night or a weekend in one of the nearby historic inns is to immerse yourself in an earlier era.
In the quest of authenticity, many inns have been decorated with what to the modern eye are unfamiliar pieces of furniture. This doesn't mean you can expect to make do with chamber pots, but you may encounter a four-poster bed standing so high off the floor you need a footstool to climb into it. You could stretch an unused muscle getting in or out, but living the way one's predecessors did is part of the charm -- and the fun -- of a historic inn.
In recent weeks, we've visited three such inns -- each very different from the others but all with a distinct historic flavor: Chester, a gracious 19th-century country house set on a seven-acre estate in tiny Scottsville, Va., south of Charlottesville; the elegant Society Hill Hotel, an urban inn in a former Baltimore mansion; and the Laurel Brigade Inn in Leesburg, housed in a gorgeous stone structure built as a tavern in 1759.
An important characteristic of inns is that they have the independence to set their own style. At beautiful old Chester, the innkeepers -- recent arrivals from New York City -- throw a quiet house party practically every night of the week.
As a guest, you don't have to show up for dinner. But those who choose to do so dine together with the two innkeepers around their very elegant table. It is not the kind of getaway that appeals to couples looking for privacy. But if you are a sociable sort who doesn't mind taking potluck with dinner companions, it can be a friendly way to spend an evening in the country.
Ten of us gathered around the table on a rainy Saturday night last month -- two couples, two businesswomen traveling alone, a mother and married daughter, and innkeepers Gordon Anderson and Dick Shaffer, the new owners of Chester. We sat down at 8 and, chatting amiably, lingered after dessert until well past 11, having discovered a mutual interest in old movies. This was a savvy group who could name the zany '40s movies of Jerry Colonna and Judy Canova.
Anderson and Shaffer, both practiced cooks, prepared the meal -- a very nicely charcoal-grilled roast beef -- and they popped up and down from the table to serve the courses and fill the wine glasses much as any host would do at a private dinner. And as hosts determined to please, they lit tall candles and brought out their finest Irish crystal. We felt so much like invited house guests, it seemed almost an insult -- to them and us -- when it came time to pay up the next morning.
Chester is a gorgeous, two-story white-frame mansion, built in 1847 in Greek Revival style with a grand portico and tall formal columns. The first owner was a landscape architect from England who named the estate after his native city of Chester. He planted much of the English boxwood that lines the walkways. Over the years, Chester remained a family home until Anderson and Shaffer, looking for a retirement retreat, bought it two years ago and turned it into a small inn.
They spent the first year renovating it, creating five guest bedrooms in the main house and two in the adjacent cottage. One big project was to get Chester's eight fireplaces back in working order, and the wood now is laid in each bedroom waiting for a cool night. Out back, well away from the house, they built a large kennel for their four aristocratic-looking Borzois -- also known as Russian wolfhounds, or as Anderson says, "the world's largest lap dogs." They have taken prizes in champion dog shows.
Both well-traveled -- Shaffer grew up in Morocco -- the two furnished the inn with antiques, oriental carpets and other artworks they have picked up on their trips over the years. The mix gives you a feel you are in a comfortable home and not a museum. Rocking chairs on the porch make it an inviting place to relax with a book.
Chester's moment in history was a brush with the Civil War in its final days. Union forces led by Gen. Philip Sheridan occupied the nearby village of Scottsville in March of 1865. Sheridan and his aide, Col. George Custer, are believed to have gone to Chester to arrest the local Confederate commander, Maj. James Hill, who was occupying the house. But Hill had been wounded and was thought to be dying, so they left without him. He recovered, however, and went on after the war to become editor of the Scottsville newspaper.
When you tread the floors of Chester, therefore, you are stepping in the bootprints of two major figures out of American history. True, they didn't linger long, but not far away are many more historical footsteps. Chester sits just off Virginia Rte. 20, dubbed the "Constitution Route" on the state highway map because it links so many important sites between Fredericksburg and Appomattox to the southwest.
About 20 minutes north of Chester on a very scenic drive on Rte. 20 through horse-breeding and wine-making country are Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, and Ash Lawn, the home of his neighbor James Monroe. Continue north through Charlottesville for another 20 minutes on Rte. 20 and you arrive at Montpelier, the newly opened home of James and Dolley Madison. A trip to one or all three makes an excellent day's excursion from Chester, and then you return to enjoy a taste of the life you have just been exploring.
Less than 10 minutes south of Chester, along a narrow country lane, is Hatton Ferry, one of the last of the country's old-style poled ferries. A flat-bed barge only big enough for two cars, it crosses the James River, which at this point makes a sweeping turn on its way to Richmond and the sea. Ferry service began here in the 1870s, and it is now provided by the state (for autos and pedestrians) as a historical attraction.
A guy wire across the river keeps the ferry under control, and the current carries it from one side of the river and back. But when the water is low after spring runoff, the ferry operator must get out his long pole and push. Water level permitting, the ferry -- which is free -- runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from April through October.
The other attraction at Hatton Ferry is recreational rather than historical. Just up the hill from the ferry landing is James River Runners (804-286-2338), which provides rentals and shuttle service for canoeing and tubing trips on the James. On a fine summer weekend, as many as 300 or more tubing enthusiasts may float leisurely down the James on a two- or three-hour outing. Tubing rentals are available from May through September and canoeing from mid-March through October.
At Chester, we stayed in an upstairs room called "The Suite," actually a large bedroom with a small sitting room. Windows on three sides looked out over the rolling lawns of the estate, and a fireplace promised a cozy evening for guests later in the year. The house has no air conditioning, but breezes and a giant floor fan kept the room pleasantly cool in early September.
The centerpiece is one of those high four-posters that requires a footstool to climb into it. There is a marble sink in the room, but the toilet and shower are down the hall and shared with another room. (Most rooms have shared bath.) The room rate was $60 a night for two people, which included a full breakfast of juice, coffee, hot cakes, eggs, sausage, bacon and sweet rolls. Dinner the night before was an additional (and very reasonable) $12 per person, including wine.
The group dining arrangement seems ideal for singles who like going to inns but prefer not to sit alone in a room full of couples and families. As a couple, we enjoyed meeting our fellow guests as, so it appeared, did they. Though everyone had the option of breakfast at whatever hour they chose, most of us gathered in the living room about 8 to read the Sunday paper and eat breakfast together.
Who wants to be aloof at a weekend house party?
At the Society Hill Hotel in Baltimore, on the other hand, privacy is the appeal -- although the hotel makes a point of welcoming guests with a personal touch.
When you check in, you are treated to a drink of your choice. "A glass of wine?" you ask, though some guests prefer the finest cognac. It doesn't faze innkeeper Kate Hopkins. "I'd go for the gusto, too," she says.
An urban inn, the Society Hill is patterned after the small, tasteful inns and hotels of Europe. It provides an excellent alternative to busy high-rise hotels when you are in the city for business or pleasure. No crowded elevators (no elevators); no hordes of conventioneers (only 15 guest rooms); and no $10 breakfasts (instead, a very good continental breakfast is delivered to your room with flowers and the morning paper -- and at no extra charge).
The Society Hill Hotel is actually three separate inns in three different locations in Baltimore. We stayed at 58 W. Biddle St., conveniently located for music lovers across the street from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; two blocks from the Lyric Opera House and just around the block from Ethel's Place, Baltimore jazz singer Ethel Ennis' lively cabaret.
So you won't confuse them, the other two inns are Society Hill-Hopkins and Society Hill-Government House.
The Society Hill Hotel -- its official name -- is located in the cultural and historic heart of the city. It occupies a lovely four-story brick structure that was built in 1906 as a fashionable townhouse. When Society Hill acquired it in 1982, however, it had been turned into an apartment building with eight apartments. "When we gutted the place," says Hopkins, "we had to take out eight washing machines, eight stoves ..." Fifteen guest rooms, all with private bath, replaced the apartments, and each has been furnished with Victorian antiques or reproductions. Many of the antiques were purchased from Antique Row, a collection of more than 25 shops and galleries that line the 800 block of North Howard Street. The neighborhood is being fancied up by the city with Victorian street lights and brick sidewalks. It's a comfortable walk from the hotel.
Our second-floor room was dominated by a beautiful, well-polished queen-size brass bed, nicely decorated with porcelain trim. A small table and two upholstered chairs were set up in a triple bay window that overlooked the symphony hall. This sunny nook is where we read the paper and ate our breakfast of juice, a fresh fruit cup, croissants and tea.
The Society Hill is at the northern end of another important Baltimore "row," Charles Street's Restaurant Row. It's a wonderful 10-block segment of historic Charles where at least 18 restaurants -- some of them among the city's finest -- tempt with a variety of cuisines. We chose northern Italian at the Brass Elephant at 924 N. Charles, where both the decor and the food rate very high. Occupying an 18th-century townhouse, the Brass Elephant favors an old elegance of marble, polished wood and stained-glass. Dinner for two with wine is about $50.
If you don't want to wander far from your room, the Society Hill has its own restaurant in what was once the building's basement coal room. Today it is the Grille 58, serving a moderately priced American menu of barbecue ribs, spicy Cajun-style steak, fresh seafood and lighter fare. It gets the crowds heading for the symphony.
A double room with breakfast is $85 a night, and there is free parking in the hotel lot next door. If you go by train to Baltimore, the hotel is a four-block walk from the railway station. Or if you let the hotel know in advance, a van will be sent to pick you up.
In 1825, Lafayette returned from his homeland in France to tour the country he had so greatly aided in its fight for independence almost 50 years earlier. From New England to the South he was given a hearty hero's welcome, and he was received by President James Monroe at Oak Hill, Monroe's northern Virginia home outside Leesburg. During that visit, so the story goes, Lafayette also was entertained at what is now the Laurel Brigade Inn.
Certainly it is possible. A log house on the lot now occupied by the Laurel Brigade opened its doors to the public as an "ordinary" in 1759. By the 1820s, the original portion of the present stone structure had been completed. The west wing supposedly was added as a ballroom especially for the Lafayette fete. In 1854, the enlarged building became the private residence of a physician who installed the marble mantelpieces from France and door fixtures from Switzerland.
For almost a century, the house remained in the same family. But in 1945, it was purchased by Roy Flippo of Leesburg, who restored it as an inn. His daughter, Ellen F. Wall, continues as owner and innkeeper. The Laurel Brigade, from which the inn took its name, was a gallant Confederate fighting unit in the Civil War whose ranks were filled by Leesburg residents.
As one of Leesburg's oldest structures and one of this region's oldest inns, the Laurel Brigade is very much a part of the Leesburg community -- as we discovered when we checked in on a recent Saturday afternoon. Much of the inn had been taken over by a large wedding party, an almost weekly occurrence, it seems. The inn's colonial appearance and its lovely rear garden make a popular setting for wedding celebrations.
If we had been forewarned, we might not have gone. But there we were, and though a rock band blared, we would make the best of it, exploring the city and its shops until the wedding party -- which was having a great time -- went home and the inn quieted down. In good time, the inn became the relaxing retreat we had sought.
The Laurel Brigade falls into yet a third category of inns. (To avoid disappointment, make sure you know what kind of inn you are headed for when you plan a weekend getaway.) It is basically a restaurant, serving lunch and dinner daily in a huge dining room (added in 1955) that will seat 100. The six upstairs rooms for overnight guests were added pretty much as an afterthought, says innkeeper Wall. Still, they have been pleasantly furnished with country antiques, and they are very reasonably priced for an inn only an hour's drive from Washington -- just $43 a night for a double.
We used the inn -- a creaky one -- as a convenient location to explore the Leesburg area. You step from the Laurel Brigade into the heart of the historic downtown area, which has a number of interesting 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Several now house upscale clothing and tourist shops and new restaurants. At the Office of Tourism, you can pick up a free guide to a walking tour covering about six square blocks.
The Office of Tourism is located in Market Station at East Loudoun and Harrison streets SE, an intriguing maze of old structures, including a one-time mill, that has been turned into a complex of boutiques and cafe's. On the southern outskirts of town (you will need a car for this) is the Antique Center of Leesburg, a cluster of 18 antique shops in a giant red barn beside a country pond.
Oatlands, a magnificent 261-acre Virginia estate dating back to the early 1800s, is just six miles south of Leesburg on U.S. Rte. 15. Owned now by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it is open daily from April through mid-November. Guided tours of its sumptuous interior are $5 per person and last about 45 minutes. Afterward, visitors can wander the terraced gardens, which offer a grand view of the rolling Virginia hunt country.
Back at the Laurel Brigade, we dined by candlelight in a small front dining room that reflected the inn's colonial heritage. The menu is standard American fare -- uninventive but tasty and in ample quantity. An agreeable prime rib dinner -- soup, salad, two vegetables, tea, rolls and an ice cream sundae -- was about $20 per person, including tip.
My chair faced the window on Market Street, and I was distracted by the flashing lights of the Tally-Ho, a movie theater. Shouldn't I be watching a country landscape, I thought irritably, and then shut up when my companions suggested we catch the next show right after dinner. It was so convenient -- not 20 steps away -- that I changed my mind and now consider the Tally-Ho a bonus to inn guests -- entertainment at their doorstep.
Our upstairs room was small, the floor sloped, bits of plaster hung from the ceiling and the bathroom, indeed, was tucked very tightly into a space under the attic stairs. But it was cozy, and full of odd knickknacks and interesting old pictures -- and maybe Lafayette had been a guest there, too, 162 years earlier. That was sufficient for me. I fell asleep content.