The sign on the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore is discreet, shedding no light upon who might be residing behind those ponderous-looking walls. But behind all that rust-colored brick is the city's most select hotel, a quiet and private sanctuary for the very successful.
A peek inside the English draperies last week would have revealed Cal Ripken Jr. playing host at a luncheon. Or, several years ago, Frank Sinatra posing for photos with startled hotel guests in the safari-inspired Explorer's Lounge.
There is Brunschwig & Fils fabric galore, hand-made French wallpaper murals depicting Paris' St. Sulpice Church and paneling that mimics a Cotswold manor house.
The doors of Hampton's restaurant don't open each evening unless each table holds a fresh gardenia floating in a bowl of water. And guests at some dinners and banquets don't forget their desserts easily. They may be dusted with edible gold leaf.
Since the Harbor Court Hotel and Condominium opened a decade ago, it has become the low-key downtown residence of the local A list.
Personalities as diverse as Louis Farrakhan, George Bush, Whoopi Goldberg and Bruce Willis have all called at 550 Light St. Add to this list the pop music groups: Hootie & the Blowfish, Nine Inch Nails, Salt n Pepa, Enuff Z'Nuff.
In those 10 years, sportscaster Jim McKay, Orioles stars Brady Anderson and Bobby Bonilla, homebuilder Harvey "Bud" Meyerhoff, National Geographic Society President Reg Murphy, wholesale appliance distributor Calvin Zamoiski Jr. and auto dealer Stanley Penn have lived there.
The condominium residents have their own entrance at 10 E. Lee St. The condos sell for $140,000 to $400,000, with penthouses and certain upper-floor units going higher. In its years of (P operation, the red-brick towers with the jigsaw-puzzle windows have filled Baltimore's property tax treasury more than any other address in the city.
Like the hotel guests, these permanent residents (who often spend months out of town at vacation homes) are accustomed to their privacy. The comings and goings of the titans of entertainment, business and medicine are never announced, although they are closely monitored by video cameras and noted by plain-clothes security men who crisscross the lobby.
"To Baltimoreans, the Harbor Court and what takes place there and who stays there is an unknown. I think it was designed that way," said Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbor Business Travel Group in downtown Baltimore.
The lobby, tucked just off a Belgian-block-paved inner court with a small fountain, is barely visible from Light Street traffic. The reception area is hushed.
As heavy-looking as the outside walls are, the interior seems lifted from the glossy pages of Architectural Digest, which once featured the hotel. A curved staircase sweeps up from the lobby to a series of dining rooms and a bar overlooking the harbor.
The paddle boats and water taxis outside are no competition for the opulent show of canary yellow silk wall covering, oversized oil paintings, English antiques and silver serving pieces.
It was 10 years ago that multimillionaire financier David Murdock opened his Harbor Court, a condominium and hotel complex overlooking the Inner Harbor at the edge of Federal Hill.
At $86 million, it was one of the largest private investments in Baltimore and what many considered a questionable idea: top-drawer, luxury condominium units in an untested market, combined with a world-class hotel built alongside what was then the McCormick spice plant tended by noisy tractor trailers.
To this day, Baltimoreans are generally unaware of Harbor Court's success. Its restaurants and banquet rooms have developed their own following, but this isn't the kind of hotel that the seniors at Centennial High rent for their prom.
"A luxury hotel doesn't go for full occupancy. A luxury hotel goes for high rates," said Werner R. Kunz, the hotel's Zurich-born managing director, who is 6-foot-3, with the bearing of a general.
"For several years now the hotel has operated in the black. Before that it was cash sufficient. David Murdock is a genius and was ahead of his time here," he said.
In the travel industry, the published fee for a room is known as the rack rate. At Harbor Court, a harbor-front double room goes for $260 a night. A suite would be $400.
Lunch at Brighton's, the less expensive of the hotel's two restaurants, runs about $17. A basic martini is $6.50. A cup of take-out coffee and a piece of pastry at the ground floor Expresso shop go for $2.21.
Not all the big Hotel name guests are in Baltimore to entertain or do politics. A number of overseas visitors come to Baltimore for Johns Hopkins or University of Maryland medical attention.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the 203-room hotel and the owners of 190 condos constructed in a trio of residential towers behind the hotel.