New Life For Inn

Developers Picked For Baltimore City's Inn At Government House

July 22, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Four Marylanders who helped transform Baltimore's historic Bromo Seltzer Tower into artists' studios are exploring plans to restore another city property, the Inn at Government House.

The Baltimore Development Corp. has selected Government House LLC, a team that includes father-and-son developers Martin and Tony Azola of Azola & Associates and philanthropists Sylvia and Eddie Brown, to receive a negotiating privilege that will give them time to come up with plans for redeveloping the three-building complex at 1125 to 1129 N. Calvert St.

The selection comes eight months after the city sought proposals from developers interested in buying or leasing the 21-room inn, considered the city's official guesthouse. "It's an excellent team," said development corporation president M.J. "Jay" Brodie. "We're hopeful that they can find the means to realize the full potential of those buildings."

Martin Azola said that he, his son Tony and the Browns want to build on the restoration work that was completed in the 1980s.

"What a great opportunity," he said during a recent tour of the inn's lavish Victorian-style meeting rooms. "This is ... one of the prettiest buildings in town."

The property opened in 1986 as an inn and hotel management training center. The end building was designed by Charles Carson and owned at one point by William Painter, founder of the Crown Cork and Seal bottling empire. The adjacent buildings were constructed as residences. All three had housed offices of Baltimore's recreation and parks department.

The project was originally called the Urban Inn and cost $2.5 million. It was controversial because the city, under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, was found to have violated federal rules requiring competitive bidding, and was not allowed to use a $700,000 federal grant. Local antiques dealers and arts supporters furnished the main rooms with pieces in keeping with the age of the buildings, which date from the late 1800s.

One of the original ideas was to make the inn a place to entertain official city visitors and dignitaries. In recent years, the city has operated it as a bed-and-breakfast and setting for weddings and other events.

When the development corporation requested proposals last year, Darryl Doan, the agency's director of economic development-east, said officials believed an experienced private operator might be able to run the inn more efficiently. But the city did not receive any proposals that it deemed acceptable.

Eddie Brown heads Brown Capital Management, which has its headquarters one block north. In addition, he and his wife have helped fund projects such as the Brown Center on the Maryland Institute College of Art campus and the Bromo Seltzer Tower. They've created a nonprofit that ranks among the country's leading African-American foundations and charities, according to Black Enterprise magazine.

Recent projects by Azola & Associates include the Railway Express building next to Penn Station, the former Ruscombe Mansion at 4901 Springarden Drive and the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

Martin Azola said he considered responding to the city's request for proposals for the inn last fall but did not prepare a bid in time. When he later found out that the city didn't receive any proposals it deemed acceptable, he said, the Azolas and the Browns formed Government House LLC and made an unsolicited offer. The city gave the Azolas and Browns a 120-day study period to refine their plans for the property, a period that is still under way.

Martin Azola said he believes the exterior is in "fairly good shape" and the property can continue to operate as an inn but needs to be upgraded inside to remain competitive.

He noted that because the building was last renovated in the 1980s, many of its systems and fixtures are now dated, including telephones, TV sets and refrigerators in the guest rooms and the lack of wireless Internet service. He said one goal would be to bring the guest rooms up to the level of the common rooms.

"It's now pushing 30 years since it was created, if you will, and aside from the historic furnishings that [interior designers] Bob Berman and Henry Johnson picked out for the corner building, the rooms are tired. ... It needs a facelift."

A lot has changed since the 1980s in the way of hotel amenities, he added. "It just seems logical to have 21 rooms that are the same caliber as the common areas."

According to city officials, the developers are looking at the possibility of creating a restaurant and offices as well as keeping the inn operating.

Unlike the Bromo Seltzer project, which was a nonprofit venture, the inn would be a for-profit business, he added.

The Azolas and Browns have until October to complete their plans for the property and present them to the city. Martin Azola said he isn't sure at this point if they will propose to buy or lease the inn or how much an upgrade might cost. But based on his evaluation so far, he said, he believes the inn can continue to find a market if it's upgraded and positioned correctly.

"Where else can you find anything like this?" he said.

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