Fire-damaged Park Plaza has had storied Mount Vernon career

Former mansion has had many lives and comebacks

  • Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in the city's historic Mount Vernon neighborhood.
Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in the city's… (Tim Swift, The Baltimore…)
December 07, 2010|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

The fire-damaged property at Charles and Madison streets, known as the Park Plaza, marks a gateway to Baltimore's Mount Vernon cultural district and serves as a symbol of the neighborhood's vibrancy.

Associated with a century and a half of well-known Marylanders, from Baltimore Sun founder Arunah S. Abell to former ambassador to Luxembourg Kingdon Gould Jr. to arts patron Constance Caplan, the five-level building and its carriage house at Charles and Madison streets have been a laboratory of architectural adaptation. The main building, originally a 25-room mansion, has been damaged by fire before in its 168-year history and rebuilt.

Preservationists and community leaders say they hope the building can be restored again after a five-alarm fire Tuesday morning that damaged much of the interior.

"It's a grand old building," said Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association. "Hopefully, the damage to Donna's [Coffee Bar] and the other businesses will be minimal and the building can be salvaged. … We'll extend all the help we can."

The building at 800 N. Charles St. was constructed for residential use starting in 1842 by J.D. Kremelberg, a German merchant. In 1883, it was purchased by Arunah S. Abell, founder of The Baltimore Sun, and was Abell's "in town" residence until he died 1888. In a 1989 biography, author William S. Abell described the house as a "magnificent mansion" and "a grand twenty-five room, four-story marble and brick building with a splendid winding staircase rising to a skylight in the roof." The house also has a level below grade.

After Abell's death, the building had a variety of uses. The Baltimore Club, a private social group, occupied it between 1908 and 1932. It then became the Longfellow Hotel, with 27 "sleeping rooms." In the 1940s, owner O.L. Bonifay renamed it the Park Plaza and continued to use it as a hotel. During the 1950s, Martin J. Welsh operated the building as Marty's Park Plaza, with a restaurant, bar and banquet rooms. There were whispers of high-stakes card games upstairs and secret rooms, including an arena for cockfighting on the top floor.

In 1966, four businessmen from Washington, D.C., including Kingdon Gould Jr., former ambassador to Luxembourg, bought it for use as a restaurant and possible future redevelopment. Also in the late 1960s, a portion of the property was transformed to house one of Baltimore's first discotheques, with music played on 45 rpm records.

In the early 1970s, architects Seymour Tatar and W. Boulton Kelly acquired the Park Plaza and redeveloped it as a collection of offices, shops and restaurants patterned after San Francisco's Ghiradelli Square.

Today the building has different owners but continues to feature a mixture of restaurants and upper-level office space. Besides Donna's, the property houses the restaurants Indigma and My Thai and, in the carriage house, Thairish and The Helmand. Upstairs tenants include the architectural firm of Murphy and Dittenhafer, Zenith Healthcare, Baltimore Education Scholarship Trust and Maryland Capital Management.

The building is owned by 800 N. Charles Limited Partnership and managed by the Time Group, headed by Constance Caplan, a longtime leader in efforts to revitalize Mount Vernon, and her son Mark. It is considered a "contributing building" within Baltimore's Mount Vernon Historic District and the federal government's Mount Vernon National Historic Landmark District. By law, any changes to the exterior must be approved by the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said the Park Plaza is memorable for the outdoor cafe and restaurant operated by Donna's and other businesses that add life to Charles Street. "We would love to see the building retained and the uses come back as quickly as possible," he said.

Kevin O'Keefe, a Time Group spokesman, said Tuesday afternoon that the owners have brought a restoration contractor onto the site to secure the building, assess the damage and determine what is needed to make repairs. "They recognize that it is a landmark setting on the most important square in Baltimore and one of the most important squares in America," he said.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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