Final salutes for Commander Ending: Ocean City's 67-year-old Commander Hotel will be torn down in a few days, giving Marylanders cause to fondly recall vacations there.

February 21, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- One of Ocean City's last grand hotels soon will be a pile of rubble.

The Commander Hotel on 14th Street -- long a drawing card for some of Maryland's prominent families, including the Bealls, McKeldins and Taweses -- is being torn down to make room for an eight-story hotel that will bear little resemblance to its predecessor.

And once the resort landmark is razed March 3, the only reminders of its graciousness will be sepia-toned photographs and thousands of items -- including two baby grand pianos, old-time radios and silver candelabras -- that will be auctioned at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the boardwalk hotel.

"Times change. Buildings have got to change," said owner John Lynch, whose parents, Jack and Ruth Lynch, built the three-story, wood-shingle hotel with the wrap-around porch.

Change came slowly to the Commander, which was born in a time of porch rocking chairs, waiters in starched uniforms and a formal, chandeliered dining room. It even predated the August 1933 hurricane that tore an inlet into the coast, cutting off the town from the mainland.

"[The hotel] was right here during that hurricane and all the ones since," said Lynch, who runs the hotel with his wife, Linda, and sons, John "Tres" and William. "We've been very fortunate."

When the Commander opened in 1930, during the Depression, the once-brown clapboard building was the northernmost hotel in Ocean City, with miles of sand dunes and sea grasses separating it from neighboring Delaware. The end-of-the-highway lodging offered state-of-the-art amenities, such as the resort's first elevator; modern, communal bathrooms on each floor for men and women; hardwood floors throughout; and a dining room facing the ocean.

An addition was built in 1948 along with private baths in all the rooms -- before that, chamber pots in the rooms were as common as long-skirted bathing suits. Then, four years ago, the Lynches built a separate, 24-unit building behind the old hotel.

"Now people expect microwaves, refrigerators, remote-control TVs and voice mail on their telephones," said John Lynch, 55, wearing a royal blue cap with the Commander name stitched across it. "A hotel built in 1930 can't compete with that kind of market."

But the old, 103-room hotel was the perfect setting in 1984 for the romantic movie "Violets are Blue" with Sissy Spacek and Kevin Kline, which brought Hollywood crews and national attention to the resort.

Memories

L And many Marylanders carry fond memories of vacations there.

"It was the best hotel in Ocean City," said Dennis O'Connor, walking by the hotel Wednesday with his wife, Joanne. The former Parkville residents stayed at the Commander before moving to Caine Woods in Ocean City 2 1/2 years ago.

"It feels bad," said Joanne O'Connor of the coming demolition. "We had a lot of good times in this place."

Former guests, many of whom returned year after year until the old hotel closed in September, recall the graciousness of their hosts, the Lynches, and the genteel ways of another era.

"It was just a wonderful place, a hospitable place. Everyone wore coats and ties in the evening," said former U.S. Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr., 69, who started going there as a child with his family. "My father [former U.S. Sen. H. Glenn Beall Sr., who died in 1971] enjoyed sitting on the front porch and watching people promenade up and down the boardwalk."

Even after the younger Beall grew up and married, he and his brothers, Rich and George, continued visiting the hotel with their wives and children into the 1960s, until other commitments took them in different directions.

"The attraction was the genuine family atmosphere," said George Beall, 59, a Baltimore attorney. "And you saw the same people every year."

Norris Lankford, 60, of Brooklandville was such a regular, visiting the hotel in the 1940s with his grandmother and then returning every summer from the 1960s until last summer.

"The porches, the camaraderie, the guests " said Lankford, a retired electrical engineer, explaining the lure of the hotel. "It was a great place to put your worries aside."

Good eats

And like most visitors he spoke of the down-home Eastern Shore food served three times a day as part of the hotel package, and of clam bakes on the beach.

"Potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and clams cooked deep in the sand," he recalled. "It was served on a lovely, big table on the beach."

Of course, such an event couldn't take place today due to regulations prohibiting fires on the much-more congested beach.

Tom Coates was part of those clam bakes, too, as the hotel's longtime waiter and maitre d'. In 48 years at the hotel, though, he spent most of his time in the maize-colored stucco dining room with ornate chandeliers, 11-foot ceilings and white napery. It could seat 500 guests.

"In the evening -- the big meal of the day -- ladies and gentlemen really dressed up. You have to remember this was before air-conditioning," said Coates, 72, who started working at the hotel in 1945. "The waiters and waitresses wore starched uniforms. We had an image to preserve." Coates, who left the hotel in 1993, now puts his polished serving skills to work at Waterman's Seafood Restaurant on U.S. 50 in West Ocean City.

He left the Commander, he said, because, "I look upon the hotel as an elderly lady. In my opinion, they were trying to put a miniskirt on an old lady. I couldn't bear that."

Several former guests also say they won't return to the new hotel -- with 86 oceanfront rooms and suites -- when it opens in spring 1998.

"A building will be there but the Commander won't be there," said Lankford. "I didn't go to Ocean City. I went to the Commander Hotel."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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