The Belvedere Condominiums

October 03, 1990

Can a recycler of old buildings successfully convert the Belvedere Hotel into 125 condominiums? That's the key unanswered question now that a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge has ordered the 87-year-old landmark sold to Miami-based Hertz Group for $5.5 million. Builder Victor Frenkil, after all, tried every other concept -- from a hotel to rental apartments -- in the 15 years he owned the building and accrued some $12 million in mortgage IOUs.

For a while, Mr. Frenkil seemed to succeed. The crowds of diners and merrymakers returned to the Belvedere's elegant public rooms, from the Owl Bar to the 13th floor bar. The hotel became the site for fancy weddings and bar mitzvahs. But management troubles soon surfaced, producing indifferent service, unhappy hotel and restaurant guests. Rather than remove himself from day-to-day management, Mr. Frenkil thought money would take care of his problems. He kept borrowing heavily from banks and the administration of his friend, Mayor William Donald Schaefer. In the end, the debt load became so heavy there was no way to continue the hotel as a going business.

When the hotel sale is completed next month, a Philadelphia bank will be a big loser. So will Baltimore City, though Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wisely resisted Mr. Frenkil's persistent efforts to borrow even more city money for last-minute rescue efforts.

Mr. Frenkil, who says he "never got a nickel out of it," saved the landmark at a time when the building had fallen into disrepair as a student dormitory and the future of the Charles Street corridor from Mount Vernon to Mount Royal hung in the balance. But Mr. Frenkil also was the source of many of the Belvedere's problems by insisting on running things in which he had no expertise.

The Belvedere has been in receivership before: the first time this "Waldorf Astoria of Baltimore" was sold to satisfy debtors came four years after its 1903 opening. When the current bankruptcy sale is finalized, the establishment's days as a hotel are likely to be over. Baltimore has proved a tricky market for condominiums and there is no reason to believe the Belvedere conversion will be easy. But even though the overall real estate climate is difficult, the Mount Vernon-Mount Royal area is visibly on the rise again. The Belvedere condominiums just might make it.

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