Downtown hotel's obituary is being written Landmark: The old Southern Hotel was the first Jewish-owned hotel and it kept a kosher kitchen. Its rich history will be discarded when the wrecking ball hits.

October 10, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

THE NEWS THAT our 1918 Southern Hotel will be demolished shortly caught me off my guard. The place sat there vacant for so long I assumed it would outlive all the schemes to do it in. I gulped.

Big hotels, like department stores and railroad stations, once imparted a sense of identity to a city. They were major players in the social and emotional life of a place. They were Baltimore. We owned them. We patronized them. Each room and space held an association, a distinct memory.

I never danced at the Southern's celebrated rooftop patio, but I've heard almost too many nostalgic recollections of the place. I am sure, that on a clear and warm June evening of 1939, there could have been nothing better than to have foxtrotted across its roof as a live orchestra played and the Bay boats' lights dotted the old working harbor.

The Southern did not function as a public hotel much in my adult life. In the 1970s it was converted into a marine engineering school and ended its active days that way before the students moved to Talbot County.

I'll always remember the Southern as the place that flew the banners for the sale of Orioles tickets. In truth, in the '50s and '60s, Baltimore could never come up with the sort of ticket sales that Orioles management would liked to have had.

There was a sales office at the Southern and its front marquee was long draped in orange and black signs. It was the Orioles headquarters hotel, in an era when a crowd of 15,000 at Memorial Stadium was considered hefty.

The hotel's first official, Dr. Merville Hamilton Carter, lived in a big house at the northwest corner of Calvert and 29th streets -- a block away from where I grew up.

It was an incorrect neighborhood legend that he was the inventor of Carter's Little Liver Pills. The fact is this Dr. Carter owned another patent medicine -- a salve called Resinol.

Dr. Carter did not own the Southern. A.J. Fink, who was Jewish, built the place. It was Baltimore's first large Jewish-owned hotel. As such, it has a unique place in the history of Baltimore.

Its kitchen adhered to kosher dietary laws so that practicing Jews could have a place to eat, hold business luncheons and other functions in downtown Baltimore. This fact was widely known but, in the fairly religiously closeted times of the 70 years ago, the kosher kitchen was not openly promoted.

But it was known and the hotel prospered. The Southern established a place in the business and legal community and was busy through the 1960s. Its register was a Who's Who of political leaders and media names.

Most Baltimoreans tell me they liked to drop by the old Southern, especially its basement cafeteria, reached by a handy separate entrance on Redwood Street.

It was a bustling place in the days when Redwood Street was the financial center of Baltimore, our own little version of Wall Street.

I had long hoped that some developer would come along and renovate the Southern (the happy fate of the Lord Baltimore and Belvedere), as well as the other buildings on the block, which also now will be taken for demolition. So many Baltimoreans recall the Southern's neighbor, the Thomas & Thompson drugstore and soda fountain (now a McDonald's) with its marble counters, nonstop foot traffic and magazine rack.

That fountain closed more than 25 years ago. I suggested to the city editor of the old News American (its site also slated for hotel construction) that its passing deserved a good obituary. I interviewed the owners and put down one of their heady chocolate milk shakes. The homemade syrup used in its preparation was so rich I spent the remainder of the afternoon in dyspeptic agony.

On a gloomy afternoon this week, I walked past the block where the hotel sits. It was not an uplifting sight.

I got the feeling that the block had some sort of terminal illness. Much of downtown Baltimore Street seemed shabby -- certainly lacking the spit and polish of the Inner Harbor, whose walks and streets by comparison have an antiseptic feel.

Old downtowns get rebuilt all the time. Now that no preservationist-minded developer has scooped up and saved the Southern, my worst fear is that the wreckers will come in, clear the site, then a recession will hit.

Then the whole block will become a parking lot, a void in the center of downtown for the next decade.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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