The Mansion on Delaware Avenue could be Buffalo's most mysterious landmark.
It's rumored to be haunted. And driving past it, you can't help gazing at it. Especially at Christmas. A glorious tree twinkles in the windows. Blue snowflakes dance over the doors. The sight can make you emotional. After all, this 1870 Victorian, long home to the Victor Hugo Wine Cellar, sat empty for a mind-boggling 25 years. That it's now an internationally acclaimed hotel -- it's a miracle.
[Gallery: Spend a night at The Mansion]
Yet most Western New Yorkers have never been in the place. Why would we? We have our own beds.
I always accepted that situation. Even though a Mansion overnight was on our 100 Things list, I didn't think I would take that literally. The plan was just to go and take pictures. But then a Travelocity ad blinked up at me, offering a rate of under $200. Calling the Mansion, I spoke with a butler who kept calling me "Miss Goldman" and was able to offer me a grander room on a Sunday night for not that much more money. You only live once, you know?
Howard, the guy I married, drove us to the Mansion in his second-hand Buick Century. How strange to be pulling up to the place, instead of passing by. A valet took the Buick at the curb. We walked up the stone steps. The giant doors swung slowly, automatically, open.
Inside, the place was quiet ... and huge.
The ceilings -- they're 18 feet -- seemed sky-high. Windows -- the Mansion has 200 of them -- were as tall as doors. The tree glittered with oversized ornaments. Fires burned in the gas fireplaces and threw a golden glow over the garland-decked mantels. Lights were low.
"You're here for one night?" the butler asked.
"We'll see how it goes," Howard said, deadpan. "Could be permanent."
Upstairs, I wished it were so. The room's décor wasn't quite what you'd expect. The furniture is modern and eclectic, and a grotesque painting hung over the bed. But this view, this grandeur. I could get used to this.
A Land Rover was at our service, to take us anywhere we wanted to go in a three mile radius. Meanwhile, happy hour awaited us in the billiard room. There is an honor bar there -- you help yourself, and get two drinks on the house between 5 and 7 p.m.
This situation would be great for large parties. But Sunday night is quiet, and only two other people were on hand.
"It feels as if we're kids rattling around an old mansion," I laughed. They laughed, and the ice was broken. They were from Toronto, I learned. They were here on a one-night getaway.
And why not? One night, I realized, is all you need to take you out of your normal life. An unconventionally restored old house is particularly engaging. You get caught up navigating the quirks of the TV, the shower, the tub. (The water temperature was just right -- perfectly hot. How did they manage that?)
You see your city from different angles and want to try new things. And so we decided to explore Sear, the new place in the Avant. We tried a chocolate cocktail that wasn't on the menu. Sear was an arresting place, all steel and glass. Were we even in Buffalo?
[Related: Modern steakhouse arrives in Buffalo at Sear]
After the Land Rover brought us home, we played pool -- or, ahem, billiards. The vast, dimly lighted rooms gave an idea of what a leisurely evening must have been like 120 years ago. The fireplace, some sleepy mint tea from the complimentary tea and coffee station-- and so to bed.
Next morning I awoke to a view of the lacy spire of St. Louis Church. An elaborate breakfast was artfully laid out downstairs on the billiard table, now covered with a tablecloth. Salmon, artichoke hearts, grape salad ... as I dined, I kept looking out the big windows, thinking: So this is what's in here.
"Did you see any ghosts?" my friends asked later. I didn't, and now I know why. Gino Principe, one of the owners, happened to mention that when the hotel opened in 2001, he went over to St. Louis and asked the pastor, the late Monsignor Robert Mack, to come over and bless it. The monsignor did a number on the place, blessing it room by room, top to bottom.
I'd say that blessing worked. No ghosts, and now a full-fledged urban hotel boom. The Westin Buffalo, the Lafayette, the soon-to-be-opened Curtiss Hotel and Hotel Henry ... what fun it would be to stay at all of them.
I just might.
Story topics: 100 things