Stepping Back At The Historic Gris

Posted: April 13, 1986

ESSEX, Conn. — The Griswold Inn is one of those places where you feel you can breathe a little easier, walk a little slower and digest a little better. Or, in the words of the self-improvement gurus, you can "center" yourself a little bit.

In fact, a weekend at the Gris, as it's sometimes called, can accomplish many of the same goals as a spa vacation, but without all that huffing and puffing and pesky self-denial.

Plan to leave your pressing business concerns at home. Actually, you couldn't use your telephone credit card if you wanted to; there's not a single push-button phone in all of Essex, a charming whitewashed town of 5,000 on the Connecticut River, two hours from both New York and Boston.

But as relaxing as you'll find your escape to the Griswold, a weekend here need not be an isolating or low-key experience. To begin with, there are 20 rooms, so it's not as intimate as some inns. Furthermore, the Gris can be quite a social place, particularly in the friendly Tap Room or the bustling main dining room. You can take your choice here: respected solitude or warm companionship.

Throughout, you'll find the ambiance of a traditional inn strictly maintained. It's wood, not Hyatt chrome, that predominates here. The inn, after all, was built in 1776 (the same year the shipbuilding town of Essex contributed the first warship for the Continental Navy, commissioned as the Oliver Cromwell) and it is considered the oldest continuously operating inn in America. The main building was the first three-story frame structure built in Connecticut.

If you visit the Gris, figure on leaving your diet regimen at home. This is a place to eat, and the fare, although far from eclectic, is of a solid quality (and you never have to get all duded up to enjoy it).

The Gris serves good New England fare enhanced by interesting touches such as a shaker of cracked Java pepper on each table, an unusual bacon-and-tomato salad dressing, a wonderful cottage cheese and horseradish dip, as well as an assortment of Southern dishes including seafood gumbo, deep-fried catfish served with hush puppies and a Louisiana praline icing atop the carrot cake.

Specialties include three types of homemade sausages, meat pies topped with high dough "hats," an excellent, creamy oyster stew and, for dessert, a prune ice cream; no nouvelle cuisine here.

But perhaps more important than the food is the environment in which you'll dine. Although the cuisine at the Gris isn't a-little-of-this-and-a-little-of- that, the decor is - and delightfully so; the resulting coziness makes you want to sit around and gossip contentedly.

The main dining room is, appropriately, called the Covered Bridge, since it was actually constructed from an abandoned New Hampshire Bridge; the covered- bridge shape is most apparent at the room's ceiling, high above the plank floor. A small model of a covered bridge hanging in the room contains heat lamps that are lowered over steam tables during the inn's famous Hunt Breakfast on Sunday (11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.). The brunches feature fried chicken, Maine smelts or sea perch, cornbread, broiled lamb kidneys or chicken livers, and grits - just for starters.

NAUTICAL DECOR

This Covered Bridge dining room, which bustles and reverberates with friendly noise at mealtimes, is, like the rest of the public rooms at the Gris, decorated with a variety of art hangings and bric-a-brac: ship's clocks, binnacles and Currier & Ives lithographs, all united by a maritime theme. There's a great collection of steamboat artifacts, including running

lights, mirrors, handbills and hat-check tokens.

Here, too, hang some of the 16 turn-of-the-century Antonio Jacobsen ship paintings housed in the Gris, each worth as much as $25,000. Each painting is signed with Jacobsen's name and his Hoboken, N.J., address.

The Covered Bridge dining room is also adorned with several temperance banners, such as one that shows a sheaf of grain accompanied by the words "If you eat us we're food, if you drink us we're poison." Another reads, "Large streams from little fountains flow, great sots from moderate drinkers grow." In fact, one of the former owners of the Gris purchased the inn in order to make it a "first-class temperance hotel."

Speaking of liquid refreshment, all beer at the Gris is on tap, including the rich Courage brew from England.

LARGER ROOMS

The 20 guest rooms, in the main building and the adjacent annex (formerly a private residence), are a bit larger than you might expect. Ours contained a chair actually made for sitting, a brass bed supporting good, plump mattresses and, unlike most hotel or inn rooms, adequate lighting. The bed was covered in a patterned white spread; needlepoint hung on the wall and tatted

doilies protected the furniture.

The most recent issues of upscale magazines, such as Avenue and Manhattan, Inc. - surely reflecting the management's notion of who stays at the Gris - await your attention, as does a small but electic collection of books that might range from The Hard Hats to a 1921 psychology textbook to a Spanish edition of Don Quixote. And just to cover all the bases, there is a Gideon Bible, which you might peruse to piped-in classical music (no radios - and the only television is in a common room).

Beware, though, that the floors of old buildings creak, so anyone with sensitive ears might request a room on the upper floors.

There are also four suites at The Gris, the largest one (room number 5) extremely charming with its living room with fireplace, kitchenette, porch and bedroom, with an elevated writing alcove where you can pen your postcards.

But, as the song goes, what good is sitting alone in your room? The Tap Room at the Gris has to be one of the most genial bars around, drawing a lively crowd, and you'll be entertained by a playful band that might include a banjo, piano, tuba and spoons player. An antique popcorn machine burps out a continuous stream of the buttery snack. Handmade cigars are for sale. All in all, the Tap Room fosters fun.

ROOM'S HISTORY

It's also a room with history. Built in 1738 as an Essex schoolhouse, it was abandoned in the late 18th century, then moved to its present location by a team of oxen rolling it on logs down Main Street. The pot-bellied stove in the center of the room was purchased at the turn of the century from the Goodspeed Opera House at nearby East Haddam. The ceiling is made from crushed oyster shells and horsehair and, according to the inn's owner, Bill Winterer, was never painted its brown color but instead, was stained by tobacco smoke. The boat sweeps hanging on the wall are from the Charles Morgan whaling ship, docked at the Mystic Seaport Museum, farther north in Connecticut.

The Tap Room also contains some modern, and poignant, history. Owner Winterer was a friend of the late Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso, who complained about the lack of chairs with "arms" in the inn. So Winterer had one built for her, and it is carved with the words "Governor's chair."

Also, above the Tap Room fireplace is a painting of a boat called The Ella; the painting looks old, almost like a Jacobsen, but Winterer commissioned it for Grasso, who hung it in her office. After Grasso's death, it was returned to Winterer by her husband, who didn't know that Winterer had commissioned it but thought it would fit in with the inn's decor.

A complimentary Continental breakfast is served at the Gris each morning between 7:30 and 10:30 in the Library, a small book-lined dining room with a wood-burning fireplace (you can also take a tray up to your room for breakfast in bed). Only the heartiest breakfast-eaters won't be satisfied by the fare here, consisting of English muffins, jams, coffee and tea, melons and a variety of juices including freshly squeezed orange juice.

OLD FIREARMS

The adjacent tiny Gun Room houses firearms dating from the 15th century. There's also a framed note, dated July 7, 1776, from one John Francis Putnam to his son, Girard:

I send you this little gun

Do not handle it in fun

But with it make ye British run.

Join ye ranks of ye Washington

And when our independence is won

We will take a drink of good old rum.

Even the inn's lobby, originally the bar, contains some interesting objects, most notably a model of the USS Constitution, or Old Ironsides. An ''honor box" for purchasing Griswold Inn postcards reminds you that you're not in a large city.

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If the simple pleasures within the Griswold Inn aren't enough for you, take a stroll down Essex's Main Street, with its Federal and Colonial architecture and numerous antiques and curio shops and preppy boutiques that border on the touristy. It's a far cry from the Main Street of 1776, when warehouses were filled with rum, sugar, molasses and tobacco from the West Indies.

Like many New England towns, Essex reeks of history, which contributes to its character. During the War of 1812, for instance, British mariners destroyed the Essex fleet by fire. Having commandeered the Griswold Inn, they occupied it during their Connecticut Valley campaign.

And during the Civil War, when it was impossible to obtain cotton for soldiers' uniforms from the South, "shoddy" (inferior woolen cloth made from used and reprocessed fabric material) was manufactured in Essex.

Essex is the starting point of the Valley Railroad tour, a 55-minute steam- train excursion to Chester operating between May and late October. Most

trains connect with a riverboat for a one-hour Connecticut River cruise. Call 203-767-0103 for more information.

Also, the Essex Art Gallery, at 10 N. Main St., has three shows between mid-June and Labor Day.

Essex and environs are great biking country. You can follow the bike route signs that are posted along Main Street.

If you have time, the Goodspeed Opera House is worth a visit. Located in nearby East Haddam on state Route 82, the Goodspeed is the home of the American Musical Theater, which specializes in performances of American musicals. For information call 203-873-8668.

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