Comforts of the 19th century

Pennsylvania: Ashcombe, a notable mansion and B&B not far from Harrisburg, introduces guests to the fine art of getting away.

Short Hop

November 21, 1999|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,Special to the Sun

Like a well-dressed dowager of a century past, Ashcombe Mansion, in Mechanicsburg, Pa., flaunts its ample charms and invites you in, for a night and a morning, a bed and a breakfast.

A graceful house in Victorian Queen Anne style, it features a rounded tower surmounting a wraparound porch, scalloped shingles, stained-glass windows and parquet floors. There are three stories and 10 bedrooms, eight of them for rent.

Built as a summer home for a wealthy widow in 1891 and named for the ash trees on the property, Ashcombe remained a single-family dwelling until its present owners, Mira and Ljubisa Stankovic, turned it into a B&B 18 months ago.

We arrive there on a Sunday afternoon in October, the only guests in the calm after a storm. A heavy rainfall has followed us for most of the 79 miles from Baltimore, thwarting our plan to stop along the way for a battlefield tour at Gettysburg, turning the trees of central Pennsylvania into a sodden mass without redeeming value for leaf-peepers, leaving a sky the color of lead.

Ashcombe and its owners have just weathered an unusually hectic weekend, booked solid with a wedding party and overnight guests, Mira Stankovic says, the accent of native Yugoslavia still heavy after 25 years in this country. Stankovic and her husband, a physician, bought the property -- 23 acres with a meandering, spring-fed stream, as well as the mansion and a carriage house -- about 10 years ago, and have been refurbishing and refurnishing ever since. Trying to make it pay for itself, as a B&B, is an idea that came later, Stankovic tells us. She bought most of the furniture and artworks from an auctioneer, she says, and neither knows nor cares whether the pieces are reproduction or antique: It's the aesthetic she has aimed for, not the age.

It seems she has chosen well, with an eclectic collection that includes wicker and mahogany, a crystal chandelier and bright black baby grand, glass-fronted cabinets lined with filmy curtains, an assortment of chests with gold trim, green-marble tops, gorgeous inlays and painted decoration.

Designer show house

The mansion has had its share of attention: In 1990, it was featured in the NBC-TV sitcom "Grand," and in 1997 it was the designer show house for the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. The local (Cumberland County, Pa.) Historical Society included it in a book about the area's architectural gems; in Ashcombe's breakfast room the volume lies open to the very page where it is pictured and described as "an exuberant and well-preserved example of Queen Anne style."

We knew none of that when, weeks before, we had reserved the Prince William room, shown on Ashcombe's Web site, at $120 a night. With no other guests, Stankovic offers us a free upgrade to the Duke of Windsor room across the hall. Both are spacious and high-ceilinged, with dark, old-fashioned furniture, Oriental rugs and modern TVs.

My husband, Larry, is much taken with the cheaper room's sitting area, a curved recess in the tower formation, with a camel-back love seat. But I prefer the other room's bed, a four-poster high enough off the floor that it could accommodate a chamber pot underneath (I was almost disappointed when I couldn't find one). It's so high, in fact, that there's a booster step at its side, and the oddity attracts me. For sitting, I am perfectly happy with the deep-mauve-colored wing chairs set before the windows in a big, squared-off bay.

Stankovic gives us the keys -- one for the bedroom and one for the door by the carport at the side of the house, calls for the elderly maid to spiff up the bathroom adjoining the bedroom, and disappears.

Attractions abound

For us, the inn is a perfect getaway site: After a relatively short drive from home over excellent roads, it offers us a major change from our own more contemporary surroundings. Its spacious grounds make it appear to be in the middle of nowhere, but it is just an hour and a half from Baltimore; 15 minutes from Harrisburg, the state capital; and half an hour from Hershey. Ten minutes away is historic Carlisle, home to Carlisle Barracks, where the Hessian Powder Magazine (built in 1777 with some of the labor supplied by Hessians captured by George Washington's army) still stands, a museum now, along with the more modern U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Army Military History Institute.

In the wintertime, Ski Roundtop, also nearby, would be another attraction; in warmer weather, we might want to go to Hersheypark. According to our Harrisburg-Hershey-Carlisle visitors guide, a freebie from the area's Tourism & Convention Bureau, there are interesting museums and historic houses in Harrisburg, too; but we are looking for something a little less like the attractions of home.

So we leave Ashcombe and head for Hummelstown, east of the capital city, for an 11-mile ride (at $8 a person) on the Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad, along the towpath of the Union Canal.

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