Vacant Southern Hotel gets another reprieve


June 02, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

If Baltimore's vacant Southern Hotel were a cat, it would have used up its nine lives long ago.

Targeted at various times for reuse as a hotel, offices, apartments and luxury housing for the elderly, the 14-story building has long attracted attention from developers. When an affiliate of Washington's Capital Guidance Corp. won permission to raze the city landmark to make way for a 45-story office tower called One Light Street, that appeared to be the end of it.

But 4 1/2 years after Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation approved the demolition request, Baltimore's most tenacious empty building continues to grace dTC the northeast corner of Light and Redwood streets. And this spring, it is getting another reprieve from the wrecker's ball.

Designed by Otto Simonson for builder Abraham J. Fink, the 400-room hotel opened in 1917 and was one of the city's premier hotels during the first half of the 20th century.

Many Baltimoreans have fond memories of parties and dances in the "Spanish Villa" on the roof. Last used as a hotel in the 1960s, it became the home of an engineering school that moved out in the 1980s. Designated a city landmark in 1986, it has since been controlled by a succession of developers.

The latest change in the hotel's fate is linked to a change in the economy and the owner's revised view of development prospects for the block bounded by Redwood, Light, Baltimore and Grant streets.

When the recession hit, the developers, who assembled the properties at a cost of $20 million, put their construction plans on hold. They decided to continue leasing half-a-dozen buildings that were supposed to come down to make way for the office tower because they were generating income.

But the developers still wanted to raze the vacant hotel and replace it with a temporary park. As recently as last year, they warned that a decade or more could pass before the land is redeveloped, and they said an interim park would be more attractive than a deteriorating hotel.

This spring, after removing all asbestos from the building, the owners had a change of heart. J. Joseph Clarke, head of Clarke Enterprises and managing agent for the Capital Guidance affiliate, said he now has no plans to replace the hotel with a park.

With the real estate market improving, Mr. Clarke explained, he has recently received expressions of interest from more than one company that may want to occupy a new building on the hotel site. It's not enough interest to fill a 45-story tower, he said, but it's enough to suggest that the property won't be dormant forever -- or even for very long.

Mr. Clarke said the idea now is to clear the site and construct a "build-to-suit" tower for pre-identified occupants, rather than taking a risk on a speculative project. He said it would most likely be a "Baltimore-sized building," rising 20 to 25 stories and containing about 300,000 square feet of space -- the size of the nearby Bank of Baltimore Building.

Swanke Hayden Connell of New York, one of developer Donald Trump's favorite architects, is working on preliminary plans. The firm replaced John Burgee Architects, the designer of One Light Street.

Mr. Clarke said he decided to keep the hotel in place for now because that will allow owners to save the $250,000 expense of creating the park and then tearing it up when a replacement project is ready to go. It also would be better from an urban design standpoint, he added, because the building contributes more to the street scape than a park would.

"We could push [the hotel] down in six weeks," he said. "But the site looks better with it than without it. We like the idea that the street scape is uninterrupted and that when the hotel is replaced, it will be replaced by another building."

Mr. Clarke said Capital Guidance would also be open to ideas for reusing the hotel -- although no one is exploring that option at present. It's a long shot to think Baltimore's once-popular Southern Hotel may yet find a new life. But it shouldn't be ruled out, given its proven ability to defy the odds.

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