SPRINGFIELD - On the late September day of my arrival at Lathrop House, innkeeper Diana Henry was harvesting beans for the soup pot that simmered on her stove. Her two cats pranced over to greet me. With a pleasantly distracted air she showed me through the common rooms paneled in India oak, teased out my life story, offered a bowl of soup, and repeated an ancient Roman saying that's still tucked in my journal with a sprig of herb:
"Why should a man die if he has sage in his garden?"
Located opposite 735-acre Forest Park, this painted lady with its Corinthian columns was a McMansion of Springfield's golden age.
I settled into the inn's largest room with a sumptuous king-size bed and doors that opened to a wide balcony, screened from the street by a catalpa tree. A bowl of fresh-cut regatta roses had been placed by the bed. The soft drinks and spring water in the small in-room refrigerator were free. Down the hall - none of the rooms have en suite baths - was what would have been the master bath in its day, with double sinks, soaking tub, and separate shower, all spacious and clean.
As details of the house came into focus, I noticed heirlooms intermingled with thrift store vases, and shelves groaning under the weight of games from around the world. In the kitchen, a Savary painting had been hung with élan, while the televisions (every room has a TV/VCR) were vintage cathode ray tube screens.
The like-home ambience puts guests at ease. The next morning, a couple descended the grand staircase of one-half turns in bathrobes and slippers. ("Sleep as late as you want, there's no timetable here," Henry had said.) As we breakfasted on yogurt and granola, toasted raisin bread, fresh tropical fruit, and hard-boiled, no-cage eggs, photographs of Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Gloria Steinem peered down from the dining room walls. Henry is an acclaimed photographer best known for documenting the women's movement in the 1970s.
Paging through the inn's guest book revealed a diverse clientele of regional and international travelers who benefit from Henry's fluency in Italian and French. A large number come on business, Springfield not being a big tourist draw. But with its ethnic neighborhoods and entrepreneurial buzz, the city was surprisingly full of things to see and do.
The inn is well located for touring Springfield's many hills of Victorian housing inventory, the reason it calls itself the "city of homes." If the streets surrounding Lathrop House whet your appetite, Springfield Preservation Trust publishes two self-guided walking tours listing more than 30 homes in the McKnight and Maple Hill historic districts nearby. (The website choosespringfieldmass.com offers a local's-eye view of neighborhoods.) Or you could go no farther than Forest Park across the street, full of on- and off-road trails with Olmsted-designed gardens and a petting zoo.
As a lens through which to appreciate the area, Henry was first-rate. The Big E, autumn's annual exposition of New England states, was in full swing so we got pointers on the agriculture exhibits. Among her recommended Forest Park restaurants, I liked Abudanza, offering such recherché Italian dishes as shrimp and lobster fra diablo and macaroni and cheese with lobster meat ($24.99), byob.
In my downtime, I enjoyed taking down old travelogues from the bookcase and reading in bed past midnight; tip-toeing downstairs for a bagel with boursin cheese (snacks are available 24/7); and sitting in a sun-warmed window seat with the gray tabby curled at my feet, scribbling in my journal another Henry saying that I prize:
"Give up all hope of a better past."
I left Lathrop House feeling healed; of what, I don't know.
Patricia Borns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.