Peabody turns town houses into Elderhostel dormitory


June 20, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

There are no large signs above the entrance to Baltimore's newest inn, no taxis waiting at the curb or bellhops standing eagerly by the front desk.

It's not that the Peabody Inn at 601-607 N. Charles St. is so exclusive its operators don't want the public to know where it is, like the owners of New York's ultra-trendy Paramount Hotel. It's just that this six-story project, which opened this weekend and will be dedicated Wednesday at 11 a.m., is a specialty inn that caters to a particular type of pleasure traveler.

All must be participants in the International Elderhostel program, which arranges for senior citizens from across the country to visit the Peabody Institute and take intensive weeklong courses in music and dance at a cost of $345 a person, which includes room and board. Any single guest, and at least one member of any party of two, must be 60 or older to register.

Aside from its specialized clientele, the $2.4 million Peabody Inn stands out as an unusually creative example of architectural preservation; its completion should gladden the heart of anyone who treasures the historic Mount Vernon area.

As redesigned by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects of Baltimore and reconstructed under the management of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, the 96-bed inn is significant because:

* It has been created almost entirely within the shell of four Italianate town houses that date from 1850, making it at once the newest and oldest inn in Baltimore. (The runner-up is the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point, created inside a series of buildings dating from later in that same decade.)

* Its opening caps more than a decade of work by Peabody administrators to restore or recycle all the buildings the institute occupies on the block bounded by Charles, Centre, St. Paul and Monument streets.

* The reconstruction brought new life to the last stretch of vacant buildings on Mount Vernon Place, described by Henry James as the city's "parlour." Before work began last year, the buildings had been empty since 1982, and they may have been lost entirely had they stayed dormant much longer.

Although it may not be easy to detect from the Charles Street side, the conversion of the old Washington Place town houses to the Peabody Inn was far more than a cosmetic make over. What makes it so innovative is the way the architects turned the town houses around, literally, to accommodate the new uses.

Instead of just upgrading what was there, they transformed the old back side of the town houses into a new front door for the project, while leaving the more historically significant Charles Street facades relatively unchanged. In a sense, they took a row of early Baltimore town houses, each with a typical front and back, and made it a row with two fronts and no back, without sacrificing any key interior spaces.

The four town houses that have been rehabilitated -- actually, two double town houses -- are among the oldest existing speculatively built residences on Mount Vernon Place. The land on which they were built was originally part of the Belvedere estate of Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard. It was purchased in 1850 by James H. Wilson, who built the houses and sold them within three years to a variety of merchants and professionals. Peabody administrators purchased the buildings in the late 1960s and converted them to apartments, but were forced to close them after the mechanical systems gave out.

The concept of a specialty inn was an ideal use for several reasons. Peabody has participated in the Elderhostel program for 15 years, and the Baltimore sessions are among the most popular of the 1,800 that are offered to Elderhostelers worldwide. But for the past several years participants have stayed at the Comfort Inn on West Franklin Street.

Increased enrollment

What Elderhostelers typically seek in terms of lodging is something of a cross between a hotel and a dormitory, with a meal plan thrown in. Seeing the potential for increased enrollment, Peabody officials decided that rather than let others provide housing, they could do just as good a job within the vacant town houses; and that would put the Elderhostelers closer to their classes to boot.

Expanding the program from 29 to 44 weeks of the year, Peabody figured, could increase enrollment from 2,600 to 4,000 students a year and generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the renovation.

To redesign the building, they turned to Murphy and Dittenhafer, a Mount Vernon-based firm that specializes in restoration and adaptive reuse. Its other projects include the new Babe Ruth Museum near Camden Yards and redesign of the interior of St. Vincent de Paul Church near Little Italy.

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