Occasionally, I'll indulge my imagination and envision ducking into the Hotel Rennert's once-famous raw bar. I never saw the hotel; it was torn down in the early 1940s, years before my birth. My father, Joe Kelly, happily recalls the hotel's bar and savored its oyster dishes. He is also the only person I've ever met who knew the Rennert's summer cousin.
This story unfolded this past Saturday morning when I joined a caravan of St. Ignatius Church parishioners for a picnic at Blue Ridge Summit at Cascade just northwest of Emmitsburg, where the Jesuits own a tract of land. Within a few minutes I learned about the old Buena Vista Springs Hotel, which once stood there. This enormous summer resort hotel was owned by the Rennert family, who had their famous year-round version at Saratoga and Liberty streets in Baltimore.
Baltimore's Rennert was so renowned that its story now appears on a new historical marker installed on Charles Street as part of a campaign to explain this ancient part of the city. Both Rennert properties were known for their Maryland-style food. The Baltimore Rennert had H.L. Mencken's favorite dining room. Both were heavy Victorian affairs: the city version built of brick with stone trim and the hilltop Buena Vista all wooden with banks of windows and porches to catch the breezes. It was a favorite vacationing spot for Washington society. The hotel and its environs became known as "the ambassadorial summer resort of the United States."
The Rev. William Watters, St. Ignatius' pastor, produced an old album and filled me in on how the hotel made it from the Rennert family to the Roman Catholic religious order. Both Rennert properties, Baltimore and Blue Ridge Summit, were in financial trouble in the 1930s. The downtown hotel closed in 1937; the Pennsylvania version went up for auction in 1931. The downtown hotel was later described in a Baltimore Sun account as "probably the most elaborate frame building ever built in Maryland" in the Queen Anne style.
Blue Ridge Summit — including nearby Pen Mar — flourished as a summer resort when people boarded steam trains on the Western Maryland Railway, whose line traverses Carroll and Washington counties. By the 1920s, vacationers began traveling by automobile, and these summer hotels saw reduced traffic. I also wonder if the ideas of sitting on a porch and huge meals in formal dining rooms might have become less attractive.
When the Buena Vista went up for sale, Baltimore auctioneer Sam W. Pattison handled the transaction through Catonsville attorney Thomas Foley Hisky. The Jesuits paid $25,000 in Depression money for the hotel and its extensive grounds.
The hotel became summer housing for its priests and seminarians from the old Woodstock College, then situated in the hot and often humid Patapsco River Valley. It was also used for religious retreats and day trips for the order's local educational institutions, including Loyola High School and Loyola College. My father visited the place in the 1930s on a high school class outing and recalled its swimming pool. Its ballroom became its chapel.
Summer hotels are famously prone to fire. The Jesuits posted seminarians to walk the corridors at night. The Buena Vista, renamed Bellarmine Hall, lasted until 1967. During the winter, an arsonist torched it, and it burned to the ground, with only its chimneys standing.
Father Watters oversaw the construction of new buildings on the site. But several interesting antique outbuildings survive, including a graceful little chapel the Rennerts built to serve the Roman Catholics who visited their hotel. There, at the end of the day, the parish assembled for a Mass. I was reminded of summer gatherings of my childhood — open windows and families filling up the place.
The old Buena Vista Springs Hall-Bellarmine Hall was a place that would have been right at home in Cape May or Long Branch, N.J. I asked Father Watters if it had been insured. His reply: Lloyd's of London.
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