NEWBURYPORT -- We've always loved driving into Newburyport along
It's an architectural classic. The three-story ''square house" -- two houses in one, in which the plan has been rotated 90 degrees to create a second facade and entrance on one side -- is clad in white clapboards. Black shutters adorn the 13 windows arranged symmetrically around the two-story entry. We climbed the steps and entered the front door to the long hall and an elegant staircase. On our left, the spacious parlor featured an ornate carved and cast-plaster fireplace surround (designed by Salem architect Samuel McIntyre, we learned), elaborate moldings, and a fine old ceramic chandelier. Dramatic deep-rose-painted walls and a Chinese carpet set off the architectural details.
''The house was built in 1803," innkeeper Bob Nolan told us. ''You don't get this kind of workmanship these days," he said as he pointed to the crisp dentil molding around the edge of the ceiling in the parlor. ''It was all done with a hammer and chisel."
A former banker from Brooklyn, N.Y., Nolan bought the house from a couple who had owned it for only six months and had begun converting it into a bed-and-breakfast. He explained that like many other spacious old houses, it had served as both residence and place of business over the years. The last owner before the couple had been a doctor who had his office on the first floor and lived upstairs.
We ascended that fine old staircase to the Marquand Room on the second floor, where we found a four-poster queen-size bed with lace canopy. There was also a Victorian chaise longue for reading (works by longtime Newburyport resident John P. Marquand, who wrote ''The Late George Apley," filled the bookcase), an armoire and dresser for storage, and a tiny writing desk. A long narrow bathroom had been carved out of one corner of the room, complete with full tub and shower.
A large private deck with a staircase to the inn's parking lot awaited just outside the room's back door. It would have been more of a treat in warm weather, since it also overlooked the rose garden and gazebo. The inn is within easy walking distance of Market Square and the State Street shopping district, so we strolled around in what might be the densest enclave of gift shops per square foot for many miles around.
Because the Currier doesn't serve dinner, we tried the BluWater Cafe (140 High St., 978-462-1088, entrees $13-$28), less than half a block up Green Street. The bustling weekend scene and Mark and Catherine Miller's American bistro fare (grilled lamb kebabs, goat cheese bruschetta, a giant slab of meat loaf) proved a perfect antidote to the dank and rainy evening.
After dinner, we paused in the sitting room right outside our bedroom. We contemplated an evening of reading in the wing chairs, pulled up by the decorative fireplace while sipping sherry from the decanters on a side table. The bookcase held modern leatherbound reissues of the classics, and a rolltop desk was stuffed with games and puzzles.
Much as we hate to admit it, we decamped instead to the first-floor enclosed porch off the dining room to plunk down in wicker chairs amid the profusion of green plants and commandeer the only television. We noticed a faded sign on the wall: ''Sargent School of Painting."
At breakfast around the long wooden table in the dining room, Nolan explained that the home had once been owned by one of Newburyport's better-known artists.
''Not John Singer Sargent," he said, ''but Sam Sargent." Sam founded the school in 1942 and operated it out of a carriage house on the property. Nolan, past director of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, is a collector of Sargent paintings. Five of them hang in the parlor: an early portrait and four later landscapes, including a small painting of a rosy dawn at Plum Island.
As guests helped themselves to fruits, cereal, and coffeecake from the buffet, Nolan circled the table and kept coffee cups full. Ever the good host, he made sure everyone was engaged in conversation, which naturally gravitated to real estate, old houses, and renovations. Nolan has an appreciation for his.
''I've been taking care of it for 15 years," he said.
With such good stewardship, one has the feeling it could be around another two centuries.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon write from Cambridge.