NEW LONDON, Conn. -- The Lighthouse Inn Resort, with its Gilded Age charm, is a lot like New London these days: reinventing itself.
Built in 1902 as Meadow Court, the grand summer home of Charles S. Guthrie, a Pittsburgh steel magnate who had Frederick Law Olmsted design the grounds, it first became an inn in 1927. After nearly a century of various owners and vicissitudes, the lack of upkeep was noticeable by the 1990s. Since 2000, about $6 million has gone into the property.
From the mahogany grand staircase to the recently renovated tavern, Maureen Clark, in her third year as owner, has just about brought the mansion up to the standards of its glitzy past.
Still, the inn is a work in progress; some rooms are undergoing renovations and we had to put up with relatively minor inconveniences such as freezing hallways and a crack in our window. Our room was otherwise perfect: cozy and warm and with breathtaking views of Long Island Sound. And once you accept that a 100-year-old inn, much like its 350-year-old city, is going to have its quirks, you can sit back by a roaring fire and imagine the days when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (though never together, those rivals) and other celebrities used the inn as a private retreat.
We arrived on a Tuesday night and found the parking lot full and a small conference underway. Clark has been marketing the property as a corporate retreat and event destination. We entered the Mediterranean-style hotel from the back through a door off a circular driveway. The desk clerk, while pleasant, was a bit befuddled and directed us up one flight of stairs. Only after some searching down the chilly hallways did we find our room -- two stories up.
Room 28 is enormous and recently redone. Equipped with a large bed and a long, vintage couch, a family of eight could be comfortable. The furnishings are ornate with two pink Queen Anne chairs and wallpaper featuring chirping birds. The room also came with a microwave, VCR, mini-fridge, and a sparkling, remodeled bathroom. It is by far one of the nicest rooms in the house, and we recommend staying there or in one of the 27 other rooms in the mansion. Most are filled with period antiques and have lots of character.
The inn also offers a ''carriage house" with 24 rooms next to the outdoor pool, but from our quick inspection it offers more in the way of motel basic than the period luxury found in the mansion. Clark says she intends to upgrade these quarters to ''spa rooms" to tie in with the Looking Glass Spa on the property. The carriage house rooms are less expensive, however, and the building has a gorgeous patio next to the pool. The hotel also boasts a private beach that locals rave about.
Looking out the window from our room, it's easy to see why Guthrie loved this spot. The water is about 300 yards down the street, although a neighborhood and public streets have encroached over the years. Guthrie died at 46, just four years after Meadow Court was completed. New London was then a toned-down version of Newport, R.I., for the wealthy set.
Today, the mansion's first floor is magnificent. Several blazing fireplaces welcome guests, as do the massive antiques and wood bureaus that line the hallway. When you enter the inn, you face a formal restaurant with another majestic fireplace. Adjacent is a glass-enclosed terrace that runs the length of the inn and looks over the water -- we imagined cocktails after swimming. Another outdoor porch is located behind the building.
After touring the nearby Lyman Allyn Art Museum and walking around downtown, we returned to take a nap . . . and woke up close to 8 p.m. At that hour, the restaurant was nearly empty, but we found our way into the rollicking 1902 Tavern nearby.
Clark recently expanded the bar, and a fellow tavern guest, a longtime New Londoner, said the inn has become a favorite stopping place for locals. A local choral group was performing while we had cocktails.
Guests can get the restaurant's full menu in the tavern. We chose the inn's signature lobster/mushroom crepes, a sea scallop appetizer, and a fresh swordfish dinner. The food was wonderful and priced right (dinner ran about $50), and it was made all the more appetizing by the easy tavern atmosphere.
After dinner, we wandered around the mansion, finding rooms we hadn't discovered earlier, including one with a giant fireplace. We sat for a while, but soon found ourselves dozing and so headed off to bed.
Contact Beth Daley at email@example.com.