Old USF&G offices city's newest hotel

Makeover: An insurance company's 1906 headquarters at Calvert and Redwood streets becomes a Hampton Inn & Suites.

March 02, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The historic USF&G Corp. building, once destined for demolition, will show off an extreme makeover Thursday as downtown Baltimore's newest hotel -- a Hampton Inn & Suites.

The $22 million transformation of the 1906 building at Calvert and Redwood streets has been in progress for about three years.

"Our concept was to take the historic building and restore the historic areas, and everywhere else to make sure that the customer had all the modern amenities that could be afforded into a hotel," said Rick Diehl, one of the principals of Baltimore-based Focus Development LLC, which developed the hotel. "The end result is you get a building you could never have built today."

It was a project that almost didn't happen.

Along the way, people contemplated turning the building into offices, tearing it down for a parking garage or converting it to other residential uses.

"September 11th almost killed us," said Shaffin Jetha, another principal in the development company. "We managed to get financing together, even after September 11th. It's been a struggle."

Vacant since 1990, the 7-story building had become a roost for pigeons and had a leaking roof and crumbling floors when Diehl and Jetha started their venture.

The distinguished building has a limestone faM-gade with carved lions heads, intricate plasterwork in the entry foyer and 900-pound brass lampposts out front. During construction, the developers encountered 3-foot-thick walls and vaults on every floor that had been used to hold insurance certificates.

The Hampton Inn & Suites is the first in an anticipated wave of new hotels intended to alleviate Baltimore's shortage of hotel rooms and help the city build its leisure market and boost convention business at the lagging Baltimore Convention Center.

Another long-planned hotel just up the street has broken ground and a third is planned for a site just a block away.

The Marriott Residence Inn being built at Redwood and Light streets has been in the works since fall 1998 and has had to overcome a lawsuit, a last-minute injunction and a partial loss of financing. The project is expected to cost $25 million to $30 million and will target the extended-stay market -- defined as customers staying five days or longer.

The 15-story tower, with 188 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom suites, is slated for completion in spring 2005.

"I think our product is different from the others," said Kevin M. Urgo, senior vice president of Urgo Hotels, a Bethesda developer. "We will be the city's first upscale, purpose-built, extended-stay hotel."

A long-stalled Embassy Suites is proposed at Redwood and Light streets by J.J. Clarke Enterprises.

Diehl said he welcomes his anticipated nearby competition.

"It's kind of like when you have a series of restaurants open up," he said. "It just becomes a destination. It becomes critical mass."

A second push for new hotel rooms will follow in early 2006 with the arrival of the $130 million Four Seasons hotel and residence project, billed as an "urban resort," to open in Harbor East. That project is proposed to have 200 hotel rooms, 26 to 28 condominiums, spa facilities and retail space.

Next, in the spring or summer of 2007, will come the city's long-awaited convention headquarters hotel -- a 750-room Hilton proposed for a site just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. That hotel is supposed to provide the missing piece that has kept the city from being able to capture business from many meetings that insist on a headquarters hotel.

In taking advantage of state and federal historic tax credits to help finance the Hampton Inn & Suites project, the developers and architects, AGG International and Bob Greenberg of Bethesda, and general contractor UNIWEST Construction Inc. of Falls Church, Va., retained a number of historic aspects of the building.

Their work included restoring the original executive suite with its marble walls and terrazzo floor and restoring a back- lighted skylight made of glass panels -- to produce a bright, airy space that can be used for receptions. They also restored the executive office with its mahogany walls, hardwood floor and a ceiling more than 17 feet high, for use as a large hotel room. That executive suite will cost $209 a night.

The renovation also entailed removing three elevators and the existing stairs and installing new ones, Diehl said.

The resulting boutique-style hotel features 41 studio suites and 75 rooms in all, and has meeting space, a lap pool, fitness center, boardroom and a business center in its basement. Standard rooms, each equipped with a refrigerator and microwave oven, will range in price from $119 to $189.

The hotel's core customers are expected to be business travelers who are in town between Monday and Thursday, Diehl said. But because of Baltimore's popularity as a leisure market, the hotel is expected to pick up leisure travelers on the weekends.

"It's a project of great perseverance," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp. "I think it's a piece of real evidence that a new Redwood Street is unfolding."

The Hampton Inn & Suites is already 60 percent booked for this month and expected to have an occupancy rate above 70 percent next month, Diehl said.

"It brings a 24-hour use to a business section of downtown that for the most part after 6 is pretty quiet," said Alfred W. Barry, principle of AB Associates, who is a consultant on the project. "It extends the Inner Harbor north."

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