A brewing question

A proposal to open a Starbucks in a historic inn is greeted with acceptance, indignation

December 13, 2005|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

George Washington is said to have gambled away a horse there. Later, jazz legend Charlie Byrd serenaded fans in late-night jam sessions in the cozy brick room.

And, if the Annapolis historic preservation commission goes along tonight, you'll be able to order a tall pumpkin spice latte in the room, in the basement of the Maryland Inn.

Plans by Starbucks to occupy the former King of France Tavern have some city leaders lamenting an encroaching sameness in the heart of the Colonial capital.

"It's a missed opportunity for something really special," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "When all businesses look alike, you risk losing something with bragging rights, something that is special to the city."

Annapolis' historic preservation commission is scheduled to vote tonight on the application to put a Starbucks in the stone-walled space that housed the King of France Tavern until it closed in the fall of 2003.

The Maryland Inn has operated continuously since the 1780s, when the U.S. Congress met in Annapolis - then the nation's capital - and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, was ratified in the State House. The inn is undergoing a major renovation.

One school of thought says Annapolis, even with its historic district, should not be immune to the march of mocha down Main Streets everywhere - there is, after all, a Starbucks near the city's waterfront. This would be the sixth Starbucks in the Annapolis area and the 148th statewide, company officials said.

The first Starbucks opened in Seattle's Pike Market in 1972. The chain, named after the first mate in Moby Dick, who had a penchant for coffee, mushroomed after 1982, when Howard Schultz joined - and eventually acquired - the company. Starbucks has 7,551 stores nationwide, company spokesman Nick Davis said yesterday.

The Starbucks planned for the Maryland Inn would be a licensed store, similar to those found in airports and hospitals, he said.

Davis said the new Starbucks would be a "community gathering place."

"We are respectful of the existing architecture and unique character of the building," he said.

Gregory A. Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, has helped to ease acceptance of the idea. He plans to appear at tonight's hearing in support of a 21st-century coffeehouse in the 220-year-old brick building.

"We took a pretty careful look at it [the application]," Stiverson said as he surveyed the space. "Isn't it gorgeous? It will be one of the nicest Starbucks around."

Approval is not assured, even with Stiverson's support. The commission's architectural consultant, Richard Bierce of Alexandria, Va., said the proposed 36-inch Starbucks sign, which would be placed on the Maryland Inn facade facing Main Street, would be too large and obtrusive.

"The [Maryland] Inn signs are more discreet in size as well as placement, yet they properly announce the entry path and respect the scale and refinement of their architectural setting," Bierce said in a report to the commission.

Benjamin Brown, manager of the adjoining restaurant Treaty of Paris, said he hears "righteous indignation" from diners when they hear of the plans for next door.

It was at the King of France Tavern that Washington is said to have lost a horse at the card table. And local lore holds that an underground passageway by the old wine cellar - now blocked - leads to the State House.

The indignation "passes after about five minutes," Brown said.

Then there are memories of the rich musical history of that room. In the 1970s, jazz lovers from across the region flocked there to hear the Charlie Byrd Trio and other groups. Moyer said she especially misses that scene. "It was always packed and a unique architectural venue," she said.

Elena Byrd, who is married to the late musician's brother Joe, booked many gigs in those days. Distressed to hear that frappucinos and eggnog lattes might be served up next in the Annapolis haunt, she said, "It's a breathtakingly beautiful antique tavern, storybook with hand-hewn beams, and it had the very finest jazz.

"Now we're going to have a coffeeshop, which is not the highest best use. If it were a historic coffeehouse, I would understand."

A few independent coffeeshop owners and workers within walking distance of Church Circle said they are not fearful of the competition from Starbucks.

"We know your name, your sweeteners, the name of your dog," said Whitney King, a barista at Pony Espresso, a tiny shop on West Street.

Stiverson, the historic group's president, said the good news is that a coffeeshop - even one that is part of a national chain - is true to the location's original spirit of hospitality.

"This is not the end of Annapolis, and the world will survive," he said. "It's an appropriate use because in the 18th century, English coffeehouses were a social place where men gathered to exchange news and civilized banter."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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