New Downtown Hotel Retains Just A Little Of The Old B&o

August 08, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

It's been heartening to see so many of Baltimore's downtown banks and commercial buildings refashioned into busy hotels. But I slipped into a broad smile when I saw the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad logo on the rail giant's former headquarters.

The old B&O main office at Charles and Baltimore streets recently reopened as part of the Hotel Monaco chain. I've made a couple of trips to visit this impressive landmark, which suffered a botched renovation in the 1980s. The ripping apart of this grand commercial palace was so painful I had hesitated to step inside its lobby.

Railroads ruled the country when B&O ordered up a new building after its older one was burned in the 1904 downtown fire. (One of my favorite Great Baltimore Fire artifacts is a gaslight globe from a B&O office that the intense fire melted into a misshapen glob.)

The company hired the architectural firm of Parker Thomas & Rice, which dished up this splendid pile in 1906. This was a downtown corporate headquarters of the Teddy Roosevelt/gold standard era.

These architects were busy all over Baltimore. While walking to the B&O building and looking around, I saw much evidence of work by these same designers: the old Savings Bank of Baltimore, the Hotel Belvedere, the BGE Lexington Street headquarters, the old Alex. Brown & Sons building and even the former city ticket office of the rival Pennsylvania Railroad. They made it up Charles Street, too, and gave the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus its Gilman Hall.

As a child, I visited the B&O Building's lobby to see its Christmas garden display and hear the company glee club sing carols. The place was a splendid example of the early skyscraper style of construction, heavy on the marble and bronze elevator doors. The place also had an amazing, manually operated telephone switchboard room, where operators connected all outposts of this sprawling rail empire.

The railroad later joined with the Chesapeake & Ohio, morphed into CSX and eventually left 2 N. Charles St. Its lavish executive offices were hacked to pieces and much of its beautiful woodwork sold off as architectural salvage. Every so often, I detect a B&O vice president's walnut paneled wall in a barroom or club cellar.

This current re-renovation has successfully smoothed over many of the dumbest errors of the 1980s. The polished marble looks excellent, and there is something comforting about seeing vacationing families filling the lobby and having coffee and scrambled eggs in the hotel restaurant, which carries a version of the B&O corporate logo and a steam and diesel locomotive.

The hotel's designers wisely steered clear of making this into a railway museum. We've got one of those already at Pratt and Poppleton streets. There is no attempt to use B&O white-and-blue china. But when a waiter handed me a menu headed with the words B&O Brasserie, I did think of a dining car menu, just for a minute.

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