Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Hothouse of Cool Old Things: Inside the Red Lion Inn

A freight train worth of period furnishings and luxurious ornamentations, paintings, illustrations, drawings and photographs poured sideways through the long and artfully busy corridors of the Red Lion Inn and arranged with maniacal care: Start with that. You feel you are living inside somebody's fantasy-land dollhouse. A very old, perfectly kept piano discovered by itself in a hallway. Have we stumbled into some Western pharaoh's burial chamber? Do we dare lift the hood from the keys and touch it? Prints of Norman Rockwell's famous images, a local reference in the town where the classic American illustrator once shared digs on its iconic small-town Main Street with the hotel, pop up everywhere. The Gregory Peckish young man standing up to speak his piece at town meeting among proud elders graces the wall in our room. The books in the corridor's frequent cases run toward golden-oldie bestsellers.

            We have never before ventured inside the Red Lion Inn, though we have driven past it many times each year for many summers.

            Truth be told, we have never set eyes on Anne's family summer cottage in the month of November, or in any of the other off-season months between October, when the water is turned off, and May. Or on the town whose claims to fame include both Rockwell's long creative residence here and James Taylor's briefer stay in what was then genteelly called a sanatorium, leading to the local reference in Taylor's autobiographical classic "Sweet Baby James":

            "Well the first of December was covered with snow/And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston." Yes, that Stockbridge.

            Another couples minutes of fame derive from Arlo Guthrie's talking-folk ballad "Alice's Restaurant." This period piece includes the classic protest line "You don't think I'm going to kill myself over littering, Officer O'B, do you?" after the ballad's troubadour and buds were arrested for dumping the remains of a Thanksgiving dinner on the day the town dump was closed. Years later we encountered Officer O'B (O'Brien) directing traffic outside a Tanglewood concert. He stooped to give his lawn ticket to a cute little girl who happened to be our daughter.

            So, a small town but not an obscure one. The roofline, facades and store windows on Main Street look much as they might have in, say, 1940. But in the early dark of late November -- seeing it last weekend for the first time at this seasonal cusp -- Stockbridge struck me as the place where the American mind goes home after dark... To hunker down... comfortably. (If it can afford to.)

            And if your idea of an old-fashioned grand hotel is something like the big old white elephant in "The Shining," the antidote is the Red Lion Inn. For one thing the ghosts are friendly.

            To get an idea of the look of it, buy up all the antique stores you've ever been to and pour them into a block-deep building that smells everywhere of long-ago wood smokes with all its pieces of wood, paint, ceramic, glass or other material restored to their nostalgic pleasure-peak. Articles of furniture in the wardrobe-cupboard family, from glass breakfronts to solid ice chests: anything with legs, clawed feet, painted doors, cabinet handles, and all other movable stylings as far from IKEA as possible and as close as can be to the way your great-great-Grandmother Maurititious would expect them to look. Distribute some of these plus straight-backed chairs designed with French kings or English queens in mind into sitting rooms that pop up around the next stairwell about where you're sure the place has run out of corridor -- but no, here's another back stairwell. Another hallway with key-hole doors and high numbers. 
          Think oversized three-dimensional Yankee Magazine fantasy mixed with a dash of Hogwarts. You're not sure some of those early nineteenth century gentleman's or ladies' journal illustrations aren't about to leap off the wall and dance a minuet through the corridor. Rooms with gas-flickering fireplaces. Rooms with computers. A 'sun room' with elegant chairs and the usual array of old but interesting art on the wall looking out on the all-year outdoor heated pool and hot tub ('let us know,' the sign says, 'and we'll remove the cover for you'). The andirons on the lobby fireplace taper to the heads of lions. Rows of china teapots (their number like the grains of sand in the desert) display themselves confidently on cross beams beneath the the ceiling as you walk underneath. You know none of them has ever, ever fallen.

            Then add people: the old folks and preppy young men who get up early to snag the sofas by the fireplace. The older couple who have been here forever, exchanging cautious words with a solitary visitor from Denmark. The repeat visitors who always come this time of year and avoid eye contact with anyone not part of their precious memory mansion. The woman of a certain age who dresses with utmost care, cuts her hair just so, and regards the world with a severe, sidelong glance saying 'I am not to be trifled with.'

            Then there's the dining room, deep and long like the hull of a ship, almost wholly open, a corridor running along one side where a mixed traffic of purposeful waiters and dawdling or confused guests wander up and down the corridors, confused by the many staircases. Countless tables, all set with white cloth and china settings and centerpieces of perfectly arranged fresh flowers.

            Then the "tavern," a superb woodsy, dark place with the requisite high-end bar, many little tables, and a wealth of imagery (both antique and trendy) in metal or glass or softer stuff hanging from the rafters like the charm bracelet dangling from the wrist of an insanely exuberant, but tasteful giant.

            It's telling somehow that the animal spirit of the place is a very large, well-fed, not easily impressed male cat who sometimes allows himself to be seduced into going to a guest's room and spending the night. A sign tells you not to let that happen.

            The Red Lion Inn is the place where old money goes if it's tired of international hotspots and too many airports. And a fun place for the rest of us to hang for a few days and pretend we belong.