Recalling some storied downtown hotels

Baltimore Glimpses

May 04, 1999|By Gilbert Sandler

GOOD NEWS for Baltimore: The Congress Hotel, on Franklin Street west of Howard Street, is to be reborn as 36 apartments. That's a win for us city nostalgia buffs after many losses of old Baltimore hotels.

The bad news: the old Southern Hotel, at Light and Redwood streets, is to face the wrecking ball.

Reading about the fates of such old Baltimore haunts stirs up memories that when pieced together tells much of the history of this city.

For much of this century, the Baltimore area's leading hotels were concentrated downtown, the center of commerce and entertainment. When the disastrous flight to the suburbs began in the 1950s, it left the hotels with empty lobbies, rooms and bars.

Meanwhile, the old hotels started looking small and faded when compared with modern office towers and chain hotels.

As a result, some once-famous hotels bit the dust, including the Emerson Hotel at Baltimore and Calvert streets and the Biltmore at Fayette and Paca streets.

In the Jim Crow era, three hotels served Baltimore's black community. The York, at Dolphin and Madison streets, played host to many of the celebrated African-American entertainers who played the Royal Theater in West Baltimore. Many such celebrities played at downtown's Hippodrome Theater, too, but none of the hotels in that area would accommodate them.

The Penn Hotel, 1631 Pennsylvania Ave., was a smaller, more expensive hotel. Smith's Hotel, at Druid Hill Avenue at Paca Street, was the largest of the black hotels and attracted some big spenders of different races, including actor John Barrymore and former Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie Jr.

Of course, several old Baltimore hotels have managed to stay around, including The Stafford, which opened in 1894 on fashionable Mount Vernon Place.

It closed in 1973 and two years later opened as federally subsidized housing. The Belvedere Hotel, which made its debut in 1903, was, until the 1950s, Baltimore's most prestigious hotel. In the late 1970s, it was sold and converted to apartments, then converted back to a hotel, and later condominiums.

The Lord Baltimore, which opened in 1928 at Baltimore and Hanover streets, has had several face lifts over the years and is flourishing as the Lord Baltimore Hilton.

A decade ago, it was announced that the Southern Hotel would be razed. I kept hoping that someone would come along and save it. Alas, it was not to be. Late last year, new plans were announced for the site: a glittery hotel, with street-level shops and posh offices.

Of course, it has been years since the Southern Hotel operated as a public hotel. During the 1970s, it was converted into a marine engineering school for a few years.

It's best known as Baltimore's first large Jewish-owned hotel; its kitchen followed kosher dietary laws, giving observant Jews a place to eat downtown.

While mourning the Southern, we celebrate the 96-year-old Congress Hotel's planned transformation. It has been designated a city landmark by Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

It's only right that the hotel where Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married will live on to see a new millennium.

Gilbert Sandler writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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