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A Maryland period piece

Frederick, rich in red brick and war stories, is worth the side trip from Washington.

August 17, 2003|Beverly Beyette

Frederick, Md. — The first thing you need to know about this history-rich city is that it is not Fredericksburg, Va., a better known destination that also is a mecca for Civil War buffs.

Upon introducing themselves, people from Frederick are apt to add, "It's in Maryland, not Virginia."

Frederick is 48 miles north of Washington, D.C., making it an easy side trip -- and a good place to spend several days on the way to or from the nation's capital. Those who visit will find a heritage-conscious city of 52,000 that has done a laudable job of preserving its past -- Washington, Lincoln and Stonewall Jackson once trod these brick-paved streets -- while acquiring an appealing sophistication.

First-rate restaurants, galleries and a host of antiques shops occupy many of the 18th and 19th century brick buildings within the 50-block downtown historic district, whose hub is Patrick and Market streets. In naming Frederick as one of its "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" for 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the downtown revitalization and the tender loving care with which the city has protected its "superb collection of Federal, Georgian and Victorian buildings."

In late May I flew from Florida into Ronald Reagan National Airport, picked up a rental car and headed through a downpour -- the East Coast was enduring two weeks of storms -- into Maryland's rolling green hills. I spent the first night 11 miles from Frederick, at the bucolic Stone Manor Inn at Middletown. The inn, part of which dates from the 18th century, is off a country road on 114 peaceful acres and has six guest suites, all named for flora. I was in low-end Trillium ($150 a night), which might more accurately have been called Cinderella's suite -- two rather higgledy-piggledy rooms in the newer wing. (The $275 suites in the older section are quite elegant.)

But any shortcomings were more than compensated for in the dining room, where the prix-fixe dinner ($69) was memorable, from the amuse bouche -- crayfish timbales in shrimp sauce -- to the roasted beet soup, Maine lobster salad and baby lamb chops. Curiosity led me to order the "creme brulee bed (with) coconut sherbet pillows." When my plate arrived, there sat a tiny bed fashioned of spun sugar with a "mattress" of creme brulee and, yes, sherbet pillows. The woman at the next table tossed dignity to the wind to photograph hers.

Driving into Frederick the next morning, I headed for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. It's not for the queasy, but it is fascinating, with its dioramas depicting battlefield medical care, its stories of the sick and wounded, and its exhibits of terrifying instruments. The statistics were amazing: Of the 620,000 soldiers who died in that war, two-thirds succumbed to disease. Three of four field operations were amputations, and 500,000 soldiers came home disabled. Not easily forgotten is the museum's "Faces of the Wounded" photo exhibit, a lineup of men missing chins, mouths and noses. (Maryland, a slave-holding border state, had divided sympathies, its sons fighting on both sides.)

Antiques shops

There was much more to be seen in Frederick, but that would wait a day. I had a reservation for the second night at Founder's House Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in New Market (population 500) eight miles east of Frederick. The town, which is essentially one street, Main, is an Eden for antiques lovers. Places such as Smith Tavern Antiques, in a former 18th century tavern, have wares ranging from cameos to corn stick pans, but many shops are open weekends only. A walking guide prepared by the New Market Historical Society is available in most shops and restaurants.

The general store, open seven days, has a little cafe in back. Its warren of rooms stocks an eclectic mix that includes a huge selection of holiday ornaments. In May, the permanent tree in the window was decked with glittery shells and other beachy baubles.

Founder's House Inn, one of the town's two B&Bs, is a nicely refurbished, antiques-filled 1778 Federal-style house. After settling into the recently renovated carriage house -- disappointingly modern but very comfortable and private -- I strolled down Main Street to Mealey's, a big, lively restaurant in a 19th century building. The Maryland crab cakes were terrific.

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