|By Lauren Viera, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 16, 2008 --Washington is a city with a diverse population, most of which lives in segregated neighborhoods. Together they form a rich quilt of a place, with patches of wealth and poverty, patterns of government workers and students, and a few random threads of homeless woven between. People visit to take in the history and multitude of museums and monuments, to see the cherry blossoms on the National Mall in the spring, tour the White House or maybe catch the occasional inauguration. But tourists aside, this is a town where blue collars and white collars clash like Republicans and Democrats.
These thoughts crossed my mind during a recent visit as I was walking in search of the Morrison-Clark Historic Hotel, a small, quaint inn in the capital's northwest downtown quadrant. It's just a few blocks from the Mt. Vernon Square 7th Street-Convention Center Metro stop, situated in a culturally blended area where al fresco Starbucks patios are just around the corner from boarded-up row houses.
Not that the Morrison-Clark is in a bad neighborhood, but it is a crossroads of sorts. The hotel, which comprises two regal, neighboring mansions built in 1864 by its namesakes, sits on the corner of L and 11th Streets, adjacent to where Massachusetts Avenue crosses 11th to create Samuel Gompers Memorial Park. Follow Massachusetts Avenue southeast and you'll hit Mt. Vernon Square and, farther south, D.C.'s gentrified Chinatown; follow it for a mile northwest and you're in trendy Dupont Circle.
While there's little to do within immediate proximity of the Morrison-Clark itself, its homey, historic feel almost makes up for that. It's the odd hotel that seemingly caters to the leisure traveler -- a refreshing alternative to the hundreds of corporate hotels built to serve conventioneers and visiting professionals in this no-nonsense capital.
Antique elegance? Well, the Morrison-Clark isn't exactly the Smithsonian, but for the frugal who want something more than an off-the-shelf experience, this may be your place. And considering the run on Washington heading into this inauguration, you might want to give it a peek.
CHECKING IN: Although its mailing address is on L Street, the Morrison-Clark's physical entrance is on 11th Street. Which, if you're visiting for the first time, can be a little confusing. (The L Street entrance opens into a side parlor.) The ex-mansion's layout is still divided into formal rooms, and the reception desk is tucked out of the way to the left of the 11th Street entrance. Staff were friendly enough with retrieving my reservation but didn't offer much information about the neighborhood or the hotel's critically acclaimed in-house restaurant.
ROOMS: Civil War-era architectural details remain in the generously sized guest rooms, which were renovated in 1987. (The building previously had been used to house visiting military officers.) From the looks of it, things haven't been updated much since. Period draperies in my Victorian room were heavy, dark and faded; wine-colored carpet met walls adorned with floral borders that didn't quite say "historic reproduction." The TV and alarm clock seemed to be from a bygone era too. The bed, however, was undeniably comfortable. My room was lit by a chandelier, which was an advertised feature of the inn's Victorian rooms, but it lacked the promised fireplace and balcony. Outside my picture windows, there was a view of the beautifully landscaped front entrance below . . . which the draperies all but covered.
BATHROOM: Disappointingly outdated, and with no attempts at Victorian detailing. The shower and toilet were cornered into a simple bathroom with standard hardware. The sink cabinet, just outside the bathroom, was nothing special. Lighting was unfortunately dim.
KID FRIENDLY: Not so much. Because of the very concept of the hotel -- historic elegance paired with Old World charm -- there are very few modern amenities to pacify the short-attention-span set.
ROOM SERVICE: The in-house Morrison-Clark Restaurant serves Southern-inspired dishes (pork tenderloin medallions and crab cakes for dinner; fried green tomatoes and bourbon shrimp and grits for lunch), all of which can be made to order for room-service deliveries during restaurant hours. There's also a "club room" menu with some lighter (read: cheaper) fare.
PERKS & PEEVES: What initially attracted this weekend tourist to the Morrison-Clark was its Web site-advertised quaintness: period antique furniture, Victorian charm and Southern hospitality. Unfortunately, the few antiques in my room did not make up for the outdated bathroom and appliances and blase attitude from the staff. The hotel's mediocre location is forgivable thanks to plenty of cabs and the brief (but colorful) walk to the Metro. The interior aesthetics and service, however, could stand an upgrade.
BOTTOM LINE: Standard rooms start at $95 in the winter months; parlor suites run as high as $269. Tax is 14.5 percent. No rooms are designed for handicapped access.
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