Celebrities always chose the Emerson Hotel: Kemp C. Gatling, manager during the glory days, has fond memories of Baltimore's bygone era of grand hostelry.

Remember When

December 14, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As the great Baltimore hotel debate continues, Kemp C. Gatling, 85, of Rodgers Forge, thinks back to the glory days when he managed the Hotel Emerson, whose lobby always seemed to be filled with celebrities, politicians and sports teams.

Gatling, who began his hotel career in 1927 as an "elevator boy" at the Monticello Hotel in Norfolk, Va., recently recalled one of his first celebrity assignments there handling the luggage of Harry K. Thaw, the Pittsburgh millionaire who created a turn-of-the-century sensation when he murdered society architect Stanford White.

White had been the former lover of Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit, known as the "Girl in the Red Velvet Swing."

"He was strange but very polite," said Gatling of Thaw, who had approached White as he sat in the roof garden of the old Madison Square Garden in New York and shot and killed him in 1906. After two celebrated trials, which acquitted him of the murder charge, Thaw was confined to an asylum until being declared sane by a jury in 1915 and released.

Gatling came to the Emerson in 1937 as a room clerk and rose through the ranks until being named manager in 1959. The hotel stood on the northwest corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets, today occupied by the Crestar Bank Building.

Capt. Isaac Emerson, who invented and promoted Bromo-Seltzer, decided to build his own hotel, so the legend goes, after he was asked by a waiter to put on a coat he had taken off in the Belvedere during a hot day. It is said that the angry Emerson uttered, "I'm going to build a hotel where I can wear what I want to."

What arose from that sartorial insult was a 425-room, $1.5 million hotel that was designed by Joseph E. Sperry, who also designed the Equitable Building and the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels.

Elaborate scale

"Although the decorations and trimmings will be on an elaborate scale, the predominating idea will be comfort and a feeling of home-like-ness," said an advance story in The Sun.

"The chandeliers for the [dining] room will be 10 massive bronze fixtures with crystal hangings suspended from the ceiling. In one corner of the room will be a marble balcony for an orchestra."

The hotel opened in October 1911 to rave reviews, with a menu that featured Mob Jack Bay au Raifort, Maryland oysters, Poussin de Hambourg a la Broche, German squab and the soon-to-be famous Salade Emerson.

Key tags were made in the shape of a diamondback terrapin. The chandeliers in the basement Chesapeake Room were decorated with crabs, oysters and terrapins.

A roof garden, which gave splendid views of the Patapsco and the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay, was an exciting venue for lovers dancing to the latest jazz tunes during the Golden '20s.

Baltimoreans, however, didn't take to the fancy French chef and his unpronounceable dishes, and he was soon fired.

"French Chef Fired -- Maryland Cooking in Demand Druid Hill Avenue has supplanted 'la belle France,' and Maryland has come into her own. No longer do suave sons of Gaul prepare the viands of 'gay Paree' for Baltimore's newest hostelry," reported The Sun.

"People were getting tired of coming to the South, the land of good, old-fashioned eating, to run across French cooking. When they come here and ask for chicken, Maryland style, or for terrapin or for oysters, they want these dishes prepared by the cooks who know how. French cooks might do pretty well in New York -- but for Baltimore, never," the-then manager explained to The Sun.

During the halcyon days, the hotel's clientele included members of New York's "400," including the fabled Vanderbilts.

Captain Emerson's only child, Margaret, was married to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr., who died during the torpedoing of the liner Lusitania in 1915.

Every president from Warren G. Harding to Richard M. Nixon stopped at the hotel. The guest books shows that Charles A. Lindbergh spent the night in a suite there after his tumultuous 1927 visit to the city. Other names included in the register include Mrs. Herbert Hoover, Helen Keller, Hugo Eckener, who commanded the Graf Zeppelin, Vice President Albin Barkley, Jean Harlow and Jimmy Durante.

"I've had cocktails with Jack Palance, Cab Calloway, Pat O'Brien, Eddie Cantor, Tallulah Bankhead," said Gatling.

"Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were our guests. Casey Stengle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle -- the whole Yankee team, in fact -- stayed with us," he said.

Gatling recalled that the Yankee skipper liked to take his meals in the chef's quarters.

The Kennedys

He remembered the day that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy arrived at the hotel. "She was very charming," said Gatling. "I remember her flopping on one of our big sofas in her suite and kicking off her shoes. I later made a scotch and water for her," Gatling said.

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