Admiral Fell Inn is expanding

BUCKING THE TREND

May 02, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Is this man:

A) Crazy?

B) Lucky?

C) Incredibly persistent?

D) All of the above?

Meet Jim Widman, the general partner in the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point. There's just been a serious real estate recession that put about half the better hotels in greater Baltimore on the foreclosure docket. He knows this. No banks are financing hotels because the market is still glutted. He knows this, too. And he knows that in this nation of ours, there are exactly four new full-service hotels being built anywhere.

So, of course, he's expanding.

"We'll be ready for the next cycle to peak," he says hopefully.

But then, it's not as if the 48-year old hotel entrepreneur decided to buck the economic cycle on purpose. By the time the 34-room hotel is expanded to 80 rooms next spring, and the closed dining room is again serving meals out of the new kitchen, and the number of restaurants has been expanded to three, and the new rooftop function rooms with the killer view of the harbor are ready for weddings and corporate meetings, Mr. Widman and partner Matthias Eckenstein will have been trying to expand their historic building for nine -- that's N-I-N-E -- years. As in since a year after the original inn opened in 1985.

"When we started this building, we could not have guessed how long it would take," he said. The expansion is being done two ways: the inn is moving out sideways behind the facades of other buildings the owners bought in 1986 along Thames Street, and another building on Shakespeare Street. The hotel is also expanding toward its middle, as the owners build some of the new rooms in space where a courtyard had been.

"We're going to maintain the streetscape," Mr. Widman said. "It's important to what Fells Point is all about."

There's the rub exactly, the reason why all this has taken so long. The path to expansion has been blocked by years of hurdles, the most significant of which was determined opposition by preservationists to earlier plans that would have expanded the inn to 110 rooms.

And they had the clout to make their objections stick, until Mr. Widman and his partner scaled down the plan and agreed to preserve historic facades.

Mr. Widman and his partner gave preservationists an easement over the historic facades of the partners' buildings in exchange for a historic-preservation tax credit. The easement gave preservationists the right to stop any plans that didn't preserve the neighborhood's updated-but-still-19th-century flavor.

The existing hotel is a blend of three buildings, dating from 1850, 1890 and 1910. Parts of the building have been a YMCA, a seamen's hostel and a vinegar factory. What they were by the time Mr. Widman arrived from Georgia, where then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer stayed in Mr. Widman's historic Savannah inn and determined Baltimore needed something just like it, were boarded-up hulks, home to pigeons and derelicts.

"Gertie was the famous wino, but there were others," said Bob Eney, the interior designer working on the expansion.

The process of knitting several buildings into one creates rooms of different sizes and sharp angles that fit together like a sort of Georgian-style jigsaw puzzle punctuated with Federal furniture. The puzzle gets more complicated with expansion.

"It will look like eight separate buildings, but inside it will all be one hallway," Mr. Widman said. "Everybody's got a bed, so you have to do something above and beyond."

The partners in 1986 decided that they needed to go above and beyond 34 rooms to justify the investments in staff and technology that make a modern urban inn -- bigger than a bed and breakfast but more intimate than a downtown corporate hotel -- function, Mr. Widman said.

"The economic model doesn't work with 40 rooms," he said. "It isn't big enough."

That decision set off the quest to expand, to find a design that would satisfy parking, neighborhood crowding and historic preservation concerns, and then secure financing from NationsBank Corp.

"The reason there is no growth is that almost every market in the country has been saturated with hotel rooms," said Dale Garvin, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Hotel and president of the Hotel and Motel Association of Greater Baltimore.

Mr. Garvin said the Admiral Fell could beat the odds against expansion in part because of its niche marketing profile, based on its location away from the business district plus its quaint design. The low risk of a smaller loan to renovate a smaller hotel also makes it an easier deal to get done, he said.

"From [the perspective of] a lender concerned with getting his money back, trying to fill 40 rooms is a lot different than trying to fill a 500-room convention hotel," he said.

Of course, Mr. Widman points out, it helps to have a Swiss partner who can guarantee the note, as Mr. Eckenstein did.

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