The Belvedere deserves better from Baltimore

December 07, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The old Hotel Belvedere has weathered its share of rotten luck.

Its good name has been dragged through the courts, subjected to fire sales and treated like some deadbeat worthy of debtor's prison. Too bad. One of Baltimore's terrific institutions deserves better, especially on the occasion of its 90th birthday. It was Dec. 14, 1903, that the hotel's brass revolving door was first used by the public.

You have to like this great old pile of brick, terra cotta and plaster. It sits atop the hill at Charles and Chase streets like a hybrid of skyscraper and chateau. It possesses the greatest roof in Baltimore. You could hide a small city under its Mansard slope.

A December afternoon's sun bathes its bricks in a pleasing pinkish cast. The main Chase Street entrance remains calm, composed and very much the way it did in the Teddy Roosevelt era.

The Belvedere is the kind of place that makes you wish others would build new palaces in this fine, outlandish style.

Every city needs a hostelry that has an attitude that says this is the place that presidents and royalty stayed when they came to town. At the same time, you recall it as the place where your sister and brother-in-law had their reception in the Charles Room. It's somehow very complimentary to think that the Duke of Windsor and your cousin Gloria Malanowski shared the same lobby sofa, maybe not together, but in a few weeks of each other.

For years the old place has bragged about its guests. If you name-drop at the Belvedere, you can come up with some good ones. People can guess your age depending on your recall of Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Peter Lorre, Jimmy Cagney, John Barrymore, Jack Dempsey, Harry Belafonte, Adlai Stevenson, Alex Haley, Albert C. Ritchie, Lauren Bacall, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Flo Ziegfeld, Perle Mesta and Ferranti and Teicher. They all checked in here.

But let's face it, they are just names. The reason Baltimoreans think kindly of the Belvedere is because so many of us went to a wedding reception here or endured a boss's speech or left the Owl Bar feeling much better than when we came in. The fact the inside of the hotel seemed to look like a baronial hall and not the inside of a Holiday Inn or an Eastern Avenue tavern was all to its credit.

Like much in old Baltimore, the Belvedere is reassuring because it has not changed too much. Even its elevators remain small and reminiscent of an earlier era of mechanics. The hotel's grand spaces -- the Charles, the John Eager Howard and the Assembly rooms, the Ball Room and the Owl Bar are some of the finest public gathering spots this city will ever possess.

It's a commentary on Baltimore's notoriously threadbare community pocketbook that these gathering places have not been uniformly successful. More than one observer has said that an interior like the John Eager Howard Room ought to house the best restaurant in Baltimore. That has not been the case. In fact, the Belvedere was in receivership not too many years after it opened. Maybe its decades of shaky finances kept the place from developing an obnoxious attitude. A great building but always a little poor.

Today we prize technology, computer terminal hook-ups in hotel rooms and state of the art shower heads. The Belvedere remains one of those old dowagers who prizes limestone carvings, marble floors, brass trim and French pretensions.

And it's nice to recall that Queen Marie of Rumania once had a 20-room suite on the second floor. And the hotel's telephone number was once Mulberry 5-1000. And that Chef Joseph Vallegant once had live terrapin crawling around in bins in the basement.

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