Friends bring an 1857 mansion to life

ON NIGHTLIFE

March 01, 2007|By SAM SESSA

The Friends of the Baltimore Hostel know how to warm a cavernous old mansion on a cold winter night.

During their monthly open houses, they give tours of the 17 W. Mulberry St. hostel they're restoring, put out sodas and finger food and ask a couple of good local bands to set up and play acoustic sets in a huge room downstairs. The next one is tonight.

"We're just trying to get people in and interested in what we're doing with the hostel," said Scott MacLeod, a member of the Friends of the Baltimore Hostel. "Basically we're going fishing with every event that maybe we'll turn up a new face, a new volunteer that can help in some capacity."

Last month, the live music, refreshments and walking tour made for a laid-back Thursday evening out. When my girlfriend, Amie, and I got there about 6:45 p.m., we were just about the only people in the building. One of the volunteers who was helping run the open houses showed us around the place.

The 1857 building was originally the home of auctioneer Francis W. Bennett. It went through numerous owners before winding up in the hands of the Potomac Area Council, a hostel organization, in the early '80s and was run as a hostel until the late '90s. Now, the Friends of the Hostel are using grant money and volunteering their time to help restore it. They aim to reopen it to the public this year.

Walking through the hostel, it's hard to believe a single family occupied the building so many years ago. There are about 25 rooms, including a kitchen with a sharp new countertop and appliances and a dungeon-like basement still being refurbished.

The main space, where the bands set up and most of the people congregate, has amazing acoustics. Most acts barely need amps to be heard - even when the room is comfortably full of people. The wood floors and high ceiling might have something to do with it.

Last month, violinist Greta Thomas and guitarist Joe Johnson went on first. After taking the tour, Amie and I grabbed some snacks from the kitchen and scored seats on one of the comfy couches facing the musicians.

Thomas and Johnson played mostly original music and some covers for a little more than an hour. Thomas is an accomplished violinist who studied music at Towson University, and Johnson has a distinct, friendly voice.

As Thomas and Johnson neared the end of their set, more people trickled in, until there were a couple dozen in the main room alone.

When Thomas and Johnson finished, Victoria Vox set up and started playing. Vox is a real gem in the local music scene. During her set, she traded off between a guitar and ukulele, strumming and singing catchy melodies with a lush voice. Her music is at once timeless and heartwarming.

Between songs, Vox told bad jokes and went into a little too much detail about a one-night stand that inspired one tune. But when she played, the crowd was captivated.

Last month's open house was a comfortable break from the usual routine. We met new people, saw live music and toured a mansion on the mend. MacLeod said they plan to keep holding First Thursday mini-concerts after the hostel is open.

"We're all really excited about this place," MacLeod said. "Everybody who walks in the building has a good feeling about it. You can't help but look at the elegance of this place ... and be won over by it. The key is to get people through the door."

If the Friends of the Baltimore Hostel keep bringing in talented local musicians of this caliber, they'll have no problem.

The Baltimore Hostel's next open house, featuring Steve Hefter and Friends and Friends of Friends, starts at 6:30 p.m. tonight. The hostel is at 17 W. Mulberry St. Free. For more information, call 410-576-8880 or go to myspace.com/baltimorehostel.

To learn more about Victoria Vox and Greta and Joe, go to victoriavox.com and myspace.com/gretaandjoe.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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