We recognized the row of Greek Revivial houses that made up the Linden Row Inn in downtown Richmond, Virginia, even without the big “Linden Row” flag hanging on the portico of one. What we couldn’t figure out was the location of the entrance. We wove our way around a bunch of one way streets. Left turn. Left turn. Left turn. There it was: on a side street, on the basement level of the houses. We pulled up to door and went in.
In contrast to the elegant, classic exterior, the lobby, with its shabby 50s motel décor, was a disappointment. I half expected Norman Bates at the front desk. Lucky for us there was, instead, a pleasant young lady who made quick work of checking us in.
“Your room is on the third floor,” she said. “You can take the elevator there.” She pointed to one small lift next to her desk.
I took advantage of the parking service and left the car out front. We chugged up the elevator – which definitely had seen better days – to the third floor, where it opened onto an old-fashioned wooden porch that covers the back of the inn. You’d think that there’d be some charm to that, but there wasn’t. The porch was filthy, as in “ash tray overflowing with cigarette butts and trash strewn everywhere” filthy. I wondered whether we should just turn around and make a quick exit.
We’d had a long day of driving and touring from Charlottesville to Jamestown to Richmond, and hunting for another hotel didn’t appeal. So we continued. Down the walkway and through some doors back into the building. There was a staircase spiraling down, which looked like it could be an option if we decided not to risk the elevator again. We found our room, braced ourselves and turned the key.
Stepping into our room was stepping into a different world – the world we had seen from the outside but had left behind once we entered the lobby. Our room was huge and elegant, with a fireplace, high ceilings, and large windows that looked out over East Franklin Street to the Richmond Public Library across. The large, marble tiled bathroom clearly had been recently renovated. Everything was sparking clean. Relief.
In the early 1800s, the property was owned by Charles Ellis, who lived across the street and had a garden where the inn now stands. Ellis was business partners with John Allan, adoptive father of poet Edgar Allan Poe. Hotel publicity says that Poe played in Ellis’ garden as a child and that it was Poe’s inspiration for the “magical garden” themes that run through his work. The houses were built by later owners between 1847 and 1853.
During the turn of the 20th century, the buildings housed a society school which claimed Nancy Langhorne as a pupil. She was the one who, as Viscountess Astor, donated the Elizabeth I picture that hangs in the Virginia governor’s house.
The row began a downhill slide in the early 20th century and, in 1922, two at the end of the row of ten mid-19th century Greek Revival houses were demolished to make room for a medical building. Preservationists were horrified and Mary Wingfield Scott, the most ardent and wealthiest of the preservationists, bought seven of the remaining eight (I’m guessing the owner of the eighth wouldn’t sell), in 1950, to protect them. She turned them into cheap apartments and studios for an eclectic group of young, struggling artists and elderly genteel poor. It remained so until Scott bequeathed the houses to the Historic Richmond Foundation in 1980. In 1988, the Historic Richmond Foundation turned the houses into an inn.
The double parlor turned out to be the only picturesque public space in the hotel. Having a historic foundation for an owner has its perks: the parlor and some of the hotel’s suites are decorated with antiques supplied the Historic Richmond Foundation.
The breakfast room was a whitewashed, shabby twin of reception area. Now that I think about it, they were located in the basement servants’ area of the row houses, so that shouldn’t have been unexpected. Breakfast was adequate. Its high point was the personable server tasked with clearing the tables and making waffles, the only hot and house-made item on the otherwise cold and store-bought breakfast buffet.
I loved our room, the location and the service so much that I’m willing to put the filthy porch down to a bad day for housekeeping and stay there again. Just a few blocks down Franklin Street is the Jefferson Hotel, a large, historic Richmond landmark. I’ve stayed there too, and would recommend it if you’re looking for something that’s uniformly grand and pristine. I found it rather sterile and soulless, though. I usually go for the quirky.
There were several choices for dinner within walkin distance. We stuck with the England- in-Richmond theme and went to the Penny Lane Pub, three blocks away. It’s owned by displaced Liverpudlians and is the place where expats go to watch Liverpool FC. There’s a formal dining room upstairs, but we opted for (and would recommend the) fish and chips in the loud — both visually and auditorily — downstairs pub.