A hotel's rise, fall and rebirth

WAY BACK WHEN

May 26, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Renovation is in full swing at the Congress Hotel, where Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse Inc. has invested $7.2 million in restoring the down-on-its-heels dowager of a hotel that looms large over the 300 block of West Franklin St.

Conversion of the eight-story landmark hotel, built in 1903 in Second Empire style, into 12 one-bedroom and 24 two-bedroom apartments is being hailed as one of the first projects to be completed in the city's much ballyhooed west-side redevelopment.

Among the features being revived is the fabled Marble Bar in the basement, whose namesake Italian marble bar stretches some 72 feet. Legend has it that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers once danced there during the 1930s, when the room was known as the Rathskeller. The bar, headquarters for new-wave bands from the 1970s until closing in 1985, will be made into a club and watering hole.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of C. William Struever has been corrected for the archive database. See microfilm for original story.

The once-elegant hotel, which played host to such theatrical notables as Bob Hope, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers and Burns and Allen, was better known before its closing some years ago for providing $15-a-night accommodations for transients.

Guests had once been greeted by the rare air of refinement, surrounded by such beautiful accouterments as stained-glass windows, carved moldings, potted palms, brass beds and heavy mahogany chests of drawers.By the 1970s, falling plaster, peeling paint and cranky plumbing were more the norm.

Still, customers out for a night on the town in those years were entertained in the Marble Bar by such bands as Squeeze, Psychedelic Furs, R.E.M., X and the Slickee Boys.

Sequestered below street level in this non-air-conditioned bunker --which given the wonderful climatic conditions of Baltimore summers, could be a trifle warm and confortable--revelers rocked while rats enlivened things a bit, zig-zagging across the floor like an army on night maneuvers.

Elsewhere in the hotel, thing were worse. In 1978, a Sun reporter spent a night in one of its rooms, and wrote that the bed felt like a "collasped accordion and looked like a bombed-out rowboat, 10 seconds before she goes under. Laying down on the bed you could almost feel the entire hotel sagging. The walls had been painted, eons ago, a very strange shade of green. The wall looked the way you feel during a bad storm on the English Channel. The black telephone on its old-fashioned cradle looked like a stage prop from a 1934 melodrama."

It wasn't always that way.

The hotel was the life dream of Baltimore impresario and philanthropist James Lawrence Kernan, who, during the Civil War, had fought for the Confederacy as a member of the Baltimore Light Artillery.

In 1903, Kernan laid the cornerstone for his "million dollar triple enterprise," which included the erection of two theaters, the Auditorium and the Maryland, with the hotel, then called the Kernan, sandwiched in between.

The hotel pandered to every sybaritic desire and included within its walls a Ladies' and Gentleman's Grill in the basement. "Meet the best people amidst best surroundings," said a contemporary advertisement. An art gallery, Turkish baths, swimming pool, barber shop, billiard parlor, rathskeller and raw bar were available for patrons.

A power plant, called Machinery Hall, generated power for all three buildings, and its operations were directed by white-clad machinists and uniformed attendants wearing gold braids.

"It was one of the most grandiose hotels of its time," wrote Baltimore author and newspaperman R. P. Harriss in Gardens, Houses and People in the 1940s.

"It was connected to the two theaters by underground hallways. Elaborately furnished with heavy plush carpeting, the marble lobby had gold leaf painting ornate carved scroll work around ceilings and trim," he wrote.

The Auditorium Theater opened in 1905 to road shows featuring such theatrical luminaries as Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore and Eddie Cantor. In the 1940s, the theater was bought by movie people and renamed the Mayfair.

The Maryland, which opened the same year, was a legitimate theater for a year before becoming a two-show-a-day vaudeville house. From its stage, Sarah Bernhardt, Bobby Clark, Fred Allen, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker and the Marx Brothers, to name a few, entertained audiences that packed the house.

In the 1930s, the theater also became home of the University Players, a New England stock company whose members included Joshua Logan, Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda. Fonda and Sullavan were married in the dining room of Kernan's on Christmas Day in 1931.

In 1949, the Maryland Theater played a role in the local civil rights movement when it desegregated, finally ending the practice of separate seating for blacks and whites. It was a movie theater for a time before being torn down in 1951 for a parking lot.

In 1932, Kernan's was sold to Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., which changed its name to the Congress Hotel.

At his death in 1912 in one of the hotel's private suites, Kernan, 74, left most of his vast fortune to the Hospital for the Relief of Crippled and Deformed Children near Dickeyville. Today, the hospital is known as Kernan Hospital.

"He was one of the city's best-known figures, and none could count a larger circle of friends. ...His enterprise and energy culminated in his later years, in the erection of the large structure containing two modern theatres and a hotel, an undertaking that gave proof of one of his best traits, his unfailing faith in Baltimore," said an editorial in The Sun.

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