New life for former Kernan Hotel Conversion: The owner of the vacant building at 306 W. Franklin St. hopes the city's Avenue of the Arts project will enhance his transformation of the historic hotel into apartments.

Urban Landscape

November 23, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

HENRY FONDA and Margaret Sullavan were married in its ballroom. Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers were among the hundreds of celebrities who reportedly stayed in guest rooms upstairs.

Soon, a new generation of artists and performers may be able to visit or even live in the historic Kernan Hotel, as a result of Baltimore's efforts to transform the Howard Street corridor into an Avenue of the Arts.

The vacant building at 306 W. Franklin St., last known as the Congress Hotel, is in line to be converted to a 42-unit apartment building, with lower-level restaurants and other public spaces.

It is just west of a city-owned property that has been set aside for the new home for the Eubie Blake National Jazz Museum and Cultural Center.

To be called the Kernan Apartments, the $5 million conversion was among the projects touted last month when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke kicked off a campaign to rejuvenate Howard Street, from Camden Yards to the Mount Royal cultural district.

In a meeting with more than 100 merchants and property owners, the mayor released a task force report that recommended housing construction as one way to enliven the corridor.

J. Thomas Dowling, head of a group that owns the 92-year-old hotel half a block from Howard Street, is eager to oblige.

He has been trying for several years to put together financing to recycle the building and is optimistic that the Schmoke administration's efforts to revitalize Howard Street will help.

Mr. Dowling said he has identified sources for four-fifths of the money, including equity and government loans, and is seeking a $1 million loan from Maryland's housing development agency. If state funds come through next spring, he said, work could begin in mid-1996 and be completed a year later.

He plans six floors of apartments, with monthly rents from about $400 to $550. The Sunderland Partnership of Washington is the architect.

Mr. Dowling, the head of Metropolitan Contracting Co., is a veteran developer who has worked on such projects as the Mulberry Court apartments, North Avenue Terraces and Patterson Commons, He acquired the Congress in 1992.

"I bought it to save it, because I think it is a piece of art," Mr. Dowling said. "People may think it's corny, but I feel that way. To me, the architecture is unique."

The hotel was constructed in 1903 by theatrical entrepreneur James Kernan as part of his "triple-million-dollar enterprise."

The complex included the Auditorium and Maryland theaters, to which the hotel was connected by underground hallways. The Maryland was demolished in the 1950s, but the Auditorium, since renamed the Mayfair, still stands and is owned by the city.

Early in the century, the intersection of Howard and Franklin streets was the heart of Baltimore's theatrical district.

Among the performers who appeared at the Auditorium or the Maryland were Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Eddie Cantor, Judith Anderson, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and the Marx brothers. Many stayed at the Kernan.

The John D. Allen Co. of Philadelphia designed the brick and terra cotta hotel in a "modified Second Empire Style." It has a decorative base featuring pilasters, a rosetted frieze and a broken arch flanked by cherubic figures.

The seven-story hotel originally contained 150 rooms. Its lavishly decorated lobby featured Corinthian columns, a marble floor, ornate scrollwork and gold leaf trim.

Guest rooms had mahogany furniture and solid brass beds. Beneath the building were Turkish baths, a large tile swimming pool, barber shop, raw bar, art gallery and a rathskeller with a marble bar -- the longest bar in the city.

Mr. Kernan died in his hotel room in 1912, leaving most of his estate to the hospital near Woodlawn that bears his name.

The hotel's name was changed to the Congress in 1932, when Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. became the owner. More recently, it became a third-rate hotel and a rooming house for the indigent before closing in the late 1980s.

Mr. Dowling said he intends to restore the lobby, ballroom and marble bar, and perhaps provide space for a "jazz-oriented restaurant" that could tie in with the proposed Eubie Blake Center.

This year he made the ballroom available for the filming of "Twelve Monkeys," a movie starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis.

"The Congress's time is coming," he said. "If the Avenue of the Arts takes off, then we hope to have tenants who will appreciate the theatrical history that has always been part of the Congress."

Directors seek $5 million for Eubie Blake Center

Directors of the Eubie Blake Center have launched a capital campaign to raise $5 million for a four-story, 30,000-square-foot home at the northwest corner of Howard and Franklin streets.

Cho, Wilks and Benn is the architect for the project, which will contain an exhibit on the life and music of Eubie Blake, dance and art studios, music practice rooms, an archive and offices. Sponsors hope to complete construction by the fall of 1997.

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