Spanish nights at the Southern

Baltimore Glimpses

April 14, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

In a little Spanish town

Was on a night like this . . . THE OWNERS of the abandoned Southern Hotel at Light and Redwood streets say it's a hazard. They want to tear it down and use the space for a city park until the economy improves and they can build a $180 million office tower.

Preservationists beg to differ about razing the Southern, but it's not to enter the argument to suggest that if a park were established at the site, Baltimoreans of a certain age could sit on a bench and hear Spanish music from above.

Stars were peek-a-booin' down

It made a night of bliss.

The music came from 12 floors up, from the hotel's rooftop night club which flourished from 1925 until 1940. The hotel was closed nearly a quarter-century later.

They called it the Spanish Villa. Governors, mayors, senators and other Very Important People were frequent patrons. Before he died, orchestra leader Lou Becker recalled: "I opened every show and closed every show with our theme, 'In a Little Spanish Town.' It tied into the decor, which, because we were named the Spanish Villa, looked like old Spain, with heavy red curtains and pictures of matadors all over the place."

She whispered softly to me

And I sighed, "Si, si."

One of the maitre d's at the Southern was Walter Kloetzli, and he remembered the Spanish Villa fondly: "There was dancing under the stars. On moonlit summer evenings you could dine by the dance floor, look up and see the stars and look down and see the Inner Harbor and the lights of the excursion boats twinkling in the darkness. It was like a fairyland up there."

Others sitting in the park may recall the night of May 19, 1964, when millions of TV viewers tuned to CBS heard Walter Cronkite welcoming America to Baltimore. Over the Southern's marquee that spring, the CBS "eye" proclaimed that the hotel was that network's headquarters for the Maryland primary election. To be resolved that night was the political confrontation of Alabama Gov. George Wallace with the forces of President Lyndon Johnson, whose "stand-in" in Maryland was Sen. Daniel Brewster.

Late that night Cronkite reported that Brewster had won by a close margin, 265,713 to 214,213.

The hotel was built in 1917 on the site where the Fountain Inn once opened its doors to the founders of the nation. It was there, on May 5, 1775, that George Washington took his lodgings on his way to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Washington stayed at the Fountain at least twice more.

Financing of the Southern was by a black-owned insurance company, the Mutual Benefit Society, whose founder was Harry O. Wilson, a wealthy Baltimorean who, because of segregation, could not enter the hotel his own company had financed. Wilson couldn't even sit in the lobby to wait for a friend. Once he tried to enter the Southern but was told to go the rear deliveries entrance.

The Southern is known, too, for having the city's first female elevator operators, who wore natty uniforms of maroon and gold, and for its popular Rainbow Lounge and Jolly Roger Piano Bar.

Cronkite couldn't have stayed at the Southern that Christmas. One night in November 1964, a white slip of paper was tucked into every mail and key slot at the Southern's check-in counter. It read: "Due to circumstances beyond our control it is necessary that we close the hotel. It would be appreciated if you would vacate the premises by 5 p.m. on Dec. 10, 1964."

In a little Spanish town

Was on a night like this . . .

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