History of hotels on proposed Hilton site


January 11, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, heads a group of Washingtonians who propose to build a 24-story, 750-room Hilton hotel on the footprint of the old Hotel Joyce, which stood opposite Camden Station for more than a century.

The station, built in 1857 by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, also housed the railroad's general offices before moving uptown to the first B&O Building at the northwest corner of Baltimore and North Calvert streets, a casualty of the 1904 fire.

While the Hotel Joyce never quite acquired the social cachet of the Belvedere, Rennert or Stafford hotels, it did have a faithful following for many years until its descent into a dingy fleabag.

According to legend, at least two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley, were supposed to have signed the hotel's guest book. William Jennings Bryan, arriving in Baltimore for the 1912 Democratic Convention, stepped off the train and dropped in for refreshment with his aides, before he moved on to his rooms at the Belvedere.

Like its nearby neighbor, the Hotel Joyce grew up with the B&O, having been built in 1861 by Col. Eugene Joyce, a judge of the Appeal Tax Court and an officer in the Union's 9th Maryland Infantry in the Civil War.

Many of its guests, arriving off the steamcars, simply crossed the busy block of 300 W. Camden St. and checked into the hotel.

A good night's sleep for a weary traveler may have been impossible to come by given its proximity to the steaming and hissing locomotives waiting in the Camden Station trainshed. And adding to this midnight serenade were busy switch engines chuffing about nosily coupling and uncoupling passenger trains.

Col. Jerome H. Joyce, a convivial and ebullient fellow with an enormous mustache and carefully cultivated Vandyke goatee, inherited the hotel from his father and was its proprietor until he died in 1934.

One of Baltimore's great boosters, Joyce was given the responsibility for planning the Jubilee Parade of 1906, which celebrated the city's recovery from the Great Baltimore Fire.

In 1910, he was the driving force behind the Halethorpe Air Show, which gave Baltimoreans a chance to see Hubert Latham, a French aviator, as he piloted the first airplane over the city.

Joyce also played a pivotal role in the planning the 1912 Democratic National Convention, held in Baltimore, and the Star-Spangled Centennial in 1914.

"He had a genius for getting people together, a knack for organization. And he had unbounded enthusiasm," said a 1952 article in the Sun Magazine. "He was a smart man - he knew that things like the air meet were good for business, which, of course, meant his hotel."

The Hotel Joyce also had a culinary reputation that was based on a house special, steamed oysters, as well as jumbo aged steaks, chops and soft crabs.

Families ate in a family dining room while gentlemen dined in a stag dining room.

"At lunch [the dining rooms] were packed with Baltimoreans well-known in social, business and political circles. Every day, Oscar G. Murray, president of the Baltimore & Ohio, brought down his big executives; every day, too, you'd see politicians like Frank Kelly, Sonny Mahon, I. Freeman Rasin, Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman, Mayor J. Barry Mahool and Gov. Austin L. Crothers," reported the magazine.

When it came to potables, the Hotel Joyce was no beer joint. Its customers sipped their drinks under a glittering chandelier that boasted 1,000 pieces of crystal.

Its bartenders poured out liberal hookers of rye in the winter months for thirsty customers, and stirred up mint juleps to help cut the heat of a Baltimore summer.

Because Joyce was a pillar of the Democratic Party, it was only natural that his place became the party's unofficial headquarters. Joyce made large donations to the party, causing the governor to elevate Joyce to a colonelcy, which allowed him to wear a deep blue uniform with gold braid and a "scrambled egg" hat.

"Also, he was of Irish ancestry and a prominent Catholic layman, and word of that traveled around. The registry often read like a Dublin street directory and the clergy were always among the guests," observed the magazine.

The dark years of the Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages, were unkind to the Joyce, the target of numerous federal raids. In 1924, a judge ordered its Teutonic, dark-paneled bar dismantled and the room converted to other uses.

After the colonel's death, the hotel's operations were taken over by his son, Jerome H. Joyce Jr., until passing out of family's hands.

In 1966, its name was changed to the Hotel Roosevelt, its golden days long gone. The city purchased the hotel in 1971 to make way for the Inner Harbor renewal project.

Two years later, auctioneer Lee Zalis finally brought down the curtain on the Hotel Joyce. Anxious buyers listened as Zalis sold off old iron beds, mattresses, beat-up bureaus, lamps, laundry and assorted detritus from the crowded years.

Starting with the contents of Room 501 on the top floor, a wag asked Zalis, "What's up in 501? Any girls up there?"

Such was life at the Hotel Joyce. Colorful to the end.

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