Eastern Shore inn waits for someone to bring it back to life

Town is drawn by the Riverside

December 30, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

GREENSBORO -- All the beds have been made. The maid's tip envelopes rest on the nightstands, next to the alarm clocks. In the dining room, sugar packets and cups are stacked neatly on a buffet table, ready for the morning coffee rush.

But no one will be sleeping at the Riverside Hotel tonight. No one has slept there in almost two years.

And despite a $1 million renovation that took years to complete, no one in this tiny Eastern Shore town has any guess when, or even if, the once-bustling landmark will be back in business.

"Everyone feels the loss," said real estate agent Marcia Rostien, who went to the hotel's restaurant often for its signature crab cakes. "I think there's more of a sadness there than anything, because of the history behind it, and just the fact that it's sitting idle."

The porchfront inn and restaurant in this riverfront town, once home to a thriving cannery industry, have been vacant since spring of last year. Potential buyers have come and gone. Rumors of an impending sale have buoyed the hopes of townspeople, only to dash them when word comes that no contract has been signed.

It's not a new predicament for the hotel, which longtime residents say has been closed about as often as it has been open since businessman C.B. Jarman built what was then a "first-class hostelry" in 1911.

The hotel's fortunes followed the boom-and-bust cycles of Caroline County's agricultural economy. New owners came and went, some of them ill-equipped to run the business. Local historian J.O.K. Walsh remembers going there for a meal two decades ago. Though there were only three other customers, the kitchen ran out of soup spoons, and the salad bar was a head of lettuce. By the mid-1980s, the hotel had closed again.

But in 1996, the hotel's fortunes appeared again on the cusp of change.

Paul Morris was driving through town when he noticed a sign that the hotel was to be auctioned off. Morris, a retired banker living in Dover, Del., had a fondness for the Riverside -- he used to meet his wife, Ruth, for suppers there during the years when she operated businesses in Easton and Cambridge.

Morris went to the auction, intending only to watch. By the time he drove back to Dover a few hours later, he was the hotel's new owner.

Ruth Morris, who was nearing retirement and getting ready to enjoy her grandchildren, wasn't exactly thrilled with the prospect of running a restaurant, bar and inn.

"She thought I was crazy," Morris, now 71, recalled. "But she went over with me after we bought it. And we started talking about colors. Given that I decided to buy it without telling her, I decided to give her carte blanche."

The Morrises brought in a contractor, J.R. Nalbone, who had built their home in Dover. They soon realized the $80,000 auction price was not the bargain it had seemed.

Their new hotel needed a new foundation, new walls, a new heating and electrical system, and new floors, not to mention a complete overhaul of the upstairs. Every time they fixed something, another problem popped up. And before they knew it, they'd spent way more than they planned to and the building was nowhere near complete.

It was then that the Morrises and Nalbone made a decision: If they were going to restore the Riverside, they would do it all the way.

Ruth Morris bought unusual pieces to furnish the rooms. She uncovered old marble tables in the basement and had them refinished. She hired an art student to paint the tavern, and had a gold-flecked glass mirror cut into panels to make the room appear larger.

She sewed cushions on the dining room chairs, hung drapes, chose tiles for the bathroom and floral patterns for the bedspreads. She directed Nalbone to restore the staircase, the tin ceilings and the bar, which hadn't been used since before Prohibition. They opened up the porch and painted the exterior teal, with russet accents. Nalbone even carved hearts and crosses underneath the porch balcony to match the ones on the Jarman family home across the street.

The townspeople took notice -- especially when the renovations stretched from months into years.

"People would go down and wander through, and just be really excited that someone was working on it and bringing it back to life again," Rostien said.

When it opened in 2000, the Riverside was an immediate success. The people of Greensboro had waited a long time, and they were not disappointed.

The Morrises hired a chef from Rehoboth Beach, Del., who whipped up mouthwatering crab cakes, lamb chops and steaks. Paul Morris held court in the dining room, while Ruth kept the books. At its busiest, the hotel and restaurant employed about 32 people.

For years, a night out for Greensboro residents often meant a half-hour's drive to Dover or Easton. Suddenly, the out-of-towners were coming to the Riverside. Some regulars came for the bar, which allowed smoking. Others liked the views of the Choptank River.

On Friday nights, Greensboro resident Mark Maston recalled, it was impossible to find a parking spot in the hotel lot.

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