40 years later, hotel still a family affair

Employees of Best Western in Edgewood reflect on close ties

May 20, 2007|By Josh Dombroskie | Josh Dombroskie,Sun reporter

The figures in the old black-and-white photograph are a little out of focus, but Pam Hess can still easily identify the person standing near the swimming pool.

"That's my sister in her bathing suit, standing there by the pool," Hess said, gesturing to the photo. "She'd kill me if she knew I was pointing her out like this."

The photo was taken at Best Western Invitation Inn in Edgewood, where Hess has worked for 28 years. She started out working summers while attending college. Her aunt and uncle, Jim and Barbara Stipe, managed the hotel when it opened and recruited her to work the front desk and fill in with housekeeping, greeting guests and making beds.

"It's a family-owned thing we have here, a lot of families work here, and several people on staff have been working here for quite a while," said Hess, who is president of Hess Hotels and the daughter-in-law of owner Dale Hess.

The hotel recently marked 40 years in operation, and members of the staff have been reflecting on the many changes that have been made since the doors first opened. There was a time when rooms featured crushed velvet bedspreads and white furniture. Bucket-seat chairs adorned the lobby and -- before there was a restaurant -- guests could buy anything from sandwiches and hot soup to a slice of pie from a vending machine.

The Invitation Inn was built in 1966 by Dale Hess, a former member of the Maryland General Assembly, and it has been a mainstay near Interstate 95 in Edgewood.

When Hess heard that the Northeastern Expressway, now Interstate 95, was being built through Harford County, he decided to use some land he owned to open a hotel near the roadway. Over the years, Hess involved his relatives in the business and the hotel has remained in his family's hands.

Joann Handlir, the assistant housekeeping supervisor who has worked at the hotel for 27 years, said that although the hotel has changed over the years, it is for the better.

"We've been pretty receptive to change over the years; we like change," she said.

The hotel's connection to the highway is multifaceted. According to his family, while Hess was in the legislature in 1963, he got to know President John F. Kennedy.

As a result, Hess was invited to the Maryland House dedication of the Northeastern Expressway on Nov. 14, 1963. Kennedy also was at the dedication and the event would be his final public appearance before his assassination in Dallas eight days later.

The roadway was renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway in 1964. And Hess would build his hotel near the highway to serve its motorists. Several prominent individuals who were friends with Hess visited the hotel on occasion, including Cal Ripken Sr. and Spiro T. Agnew.

The history of the site might be as intriguing than that of the inn operators. The hotel opened on land Hess purchased from a woman who used the space as a monkey farm.

"No one really knew why she raised monkeys, but that's what she did," Pam Hess said.

The hotel was the second Best Western hotel to open east of the Mississippi River, and is currently the oldest operating Best Western east of the river, according to the hotel.

The Invitation Inn has been revamped several times. A $2 million renovation project was finished recently and included an update to the appearance of the hotel front.

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