Staying Power

Maine: Seven years after winning a down-on-its-luck inn and restaurant, Maryland expatriates find an unbeatable combination in hard work and hospitality.

January 23, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch

CENTER LOVELL, Maine -- Word gets around. Even a German magazine touted the Center Lovell Inn & Restaurant, prompting at least two of its readers to make the astonishing discovery that American dining is not all golden arches and Southern colonels in white suits. Sometimes it's a couple from Maryland pursuing a life adventure, cooking up a reputation for providing fine food and accommodations.

Richard and Janice Cox arrived from Stevensville, Md., late in the spring of 1993 under strange circumstances. For a $100 entry fee and the effort of writing an essay, they had won the white Victorian on the hill, the life, the joy and the toil. The Coxes were a good story, and it was told on national television, in magazines and big newspapers.

Celebrity passes, the work continues. The Coxes have not merely made a go of it, they have transformed the place into a draw for travelers and diners from up and down the East Coast and even a few from overseas. They've shaken the 10-bedroom inn from a long sleep, and during business seasons are not resting much themselves.

"I find it's better not to count how many hours of sleep you get," says Janice. "I think if you kept track, it would kill you."

How much sleep was it today? Five hours? Whatever. The autumn day dawns in cold, steady rain, and there's Janice hustling between kitchen and dining room, preparing a full breakfast of French toast, fruit and yogurt, and pouring coffee for seven guests, doing the gracious hostess thing: "How are you this morning? Did you sleep well?"

Somehow, Janice is smiling. Somehow, her demeanor is perky without being cloying. Under the circumstances, this borders on the supernatural, yet her temperamental buoyancy seems genuine enough.

In the last six years her upbeat disposition has come in handy, what with the demands of the guests and the house itself, an early 19th-century pile that has variously groaned and creaked and even crashed its pleas for attention. The Coxes say they've put about $250,000 into the place in maintenance, renovation and new equipment, roughly half the amount the previous owners believed the property was worth. If this makes the deal seem somewhat less of a prize package than it might have first seemed, the Coxes are not complaining.

There have been trying moments, naturally. During their second Maine winter, 1995, things literally came crashing down. First the thermometer mercury, then pieces of the building.

One severely cold January night the Coxes stayed up keeping the wood stove going. The wind blew and the temperature dropped to about 40 below zero, and despite the best efforts, some pipes froze and burst.

"I kept hearing all this creaking at various places in the house," says Janice. "It was about 5 o'clock in the morning, and I happened to be walking by the bathroom ..."

That's when she heard the crash. A window in a second-floor guest room -- yielding to the pressure of an ice mass above formed by a roof leak -- had popped out and fallen onto a bathroom floor. Part of a front guest room ceiling collapsed. No guests were staying at the inn, but customers were expected in three weeks for Valentine's Day. Speedy repairs had to be made on the window, ceiling and assorted plumbing.

Then there was the discovery of that unfortunate fact about the foundation: Beneath the front of the house it was moving. Janice's father, Earle R. Sage, a retired builder and designer who serves as the inn's chief maintenance engineer, designed a solution that involved pouring concrete through cellar windows, turning part of the basement into a solid block.

The list goes on. The Coxes have repaired porch decks, replaced screens and all the beds, and are scheduled to have the roof repaired in March. While the inn was closed this fall, Janice and one hired helper refinished the wooden floors in the front hallway and all the dining room woodwork, replaced the ceilings on the first floor, replaced and re-papered the parlor walls.

"I enjoy it, it's relaxing," Janice says. "People think I'm nuts."

Much of the inn decor has been brightened up with new wallpaper and paint, although the style hasn't changed. The place is done in a traditional, country motif with patterned wallpaper, antiques, Oriental rugs and bare wood floors and woodwork. The gardens in front and back showcase Janice's handiwork and also supply edible flowers and herbs for the kitchen.

Richard cooks

Richard runs the kitchen, which has been transformed from a home-style affair to a professional restaurant workplace with new range, ovens, broiler, stainless steel hood and work tables. That first summer in 1993 Richard alone prepared food for a dining room that seats either 40 or 85 people, depending on whether it's warm enough for customers to sit on the screened-in porch. Now he has two kitchen assistants, part of the staff of two to 10 part-time employees, depending on the time of year. Janice's mother, Harriett Sage, also works as restaurant hostess and helps with interior decorating.

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