At first glance, the White Swan Tavern, a beautifully restored bed and breakfast in Chestertown, doesn't stand out among the 18th- and 19th-century buildings on High Street. Set back from the row of store fronts and shielded by columns that support the shed overhang, it seems almost retiring. But step inside the capacious front hall with its huge, tattered American flag (carried by suffragettes in 1919), and you are surrounded by perfectly proportioned spaces filled with antiques and imbued with an ambience that reaches back over two centuries to our nation's beginnings.
In the course of 270 years, the White Swan has been a tannery, a tavern, an inn, a private home and shops. When I first saw it 25 years ago, it was the local newsstand. Its dim interior smelled faintly of newsprint, tobacco, history and old wood. Now, the tavern still smells faintly of old wood, but the history that permeates the place is more apparent, reinforced by beaded paneling, polished board floors and wainscoted fireplaces.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in today's Travel section states incorrectly that the White Swan Tavern in Chestertown does not accept credit cards. The bed-and-breakfast accepts Visa and Mastercard. The Sun regrets the error.
Restoration of the White Swan began in 1978 with an archaeological dig that unearthed a wealth of artifacts including bits of stemware and crockery chargers (big plates) decorated with the primitive swan that is now the tavern's logo. A glass case in the tap room displays a selection of these shards, a reminder of the building's accumulated heritage. In 1981, after three painstaking years of excavation and restoration, the White Swan Tavern reopened as a bed and breakfast in the historic heart of Chestertown.
Although the general look and feel of the White Swan's public rooms is late 1700s, the six guest rooms each reflect the period of the various owners for whom they are named. My favorite is the tavern's oldest room, the John Lovegrove Kitchen. Brick floored, with exposed ceiling beams and a vast fireplace, the room whisks guests back to the 1730s, when Lovegrove, Chestertown's shoemaker, lived in this room with his family and operated a tannery in what is now the garden. The White Swan's most "modern" accommodation is the T. W. Eliason Victorian Suite on the second floor, where a tufted sofa, cabbage-rose carpeting and king-size bed with huge headboard call to mind the overwrought decor of the late 1800s, though the room itself takes a less-is-more approach to the period. Others have beautiful four-poster canopied beds and, in some cases, pictures of the room's namesake.
In keeping with the peace of the White Swan, the rooms have neither telephone nor television, though the King Joseph common room has a television for the cathode-ray-tube addicted. Bathrooms are modern. A stay there is truly an escape to a less hectic time, borne out in the quiet welcome given by the manager, Mary Maisel, and innkeeper, Wayne McGuire. After Continental breakfast in the very Williamsburgy Isaac Cannell Room, guests can curl up with a book or sally forth into the rest of the town, which is filled with history.
Chestertown Tea Party
Named a Port of Entry in 1695, Chestertown enjoyed a thriving waterborne trade -- evident in the elegant homes of wealthy merchants that line High and Water streets. Not surprisingly, Chestertown's Colonial elite were instrumental in advancing the cause of American liberty (or fomenting rebellion depending upon which side of the Atlantic you hail from). George Washington made regular trips here during the buildup to the Revolution to converse with leaders such as Col. Joseph Nicholson, who owned the White Swan and was a member of one of the Committees of Correspondence, a bunch of epistolary rabble-rousers. During his visits, Washington sometimes visited the Hynson-Ringgold House, another 18th-century treasure on Water Street with an amazing antler-shaped dual staircase.