Leaving The Belvedere the other morning to walk my dog, I noticed the front door of the lobby was propped open with a statue of the Hindu goddess Shiva. Outside, a truck full of flowers was being unloaded, and the sidewalk was lined with bouquets of red roses and white calla lilies. The next time I walked my dog, in the early afternoon, I ran into a procession of turbaned men clapping their hands as, in traditional Hindu style, they led a handsome young groom to meet his bride. My ordinary Saturday morning at The Belvedere was someone else’s wedding day, which is one of the reasons why I’m thrilled to call this grand hotel my home. I feel like Eloise at The Plaza every time I walk through the lobby.
As most everyone knows, the elegant Beaux Arts building in the heart of Mount Vernon is now a hotel in name only; it has been a condominium complex since 1991. My partner and I bought an apartment in The Belvedere in early 2004 and, despite the collapse in the real estate market, we have no regrets. What initially drew me was the size, shape and shabby grandeur of the 1,700-square-foot apartment, which is actually two former hotel suites combined into one large condo with two doors and two room numbers, 501 and 502. I fell in love with the place at first sight, awed by the way its high ceilings and crystal chandeliers were juxtaposed with unfinished concrete floors and bohemian peeling paint. There’s something wonderful and unique about living in such a grand, Gothic space.
Still, there are some unanticipated drawbacks to inhabiting a building originally designed as a hotel. Most of the condos are small, one-bedroom units with tiny kitchens and ancient bathrooms. The air conditioning leaks, the roof needs repair and anyone who’s lived in the building for more than a year has probably been stuck in the elevator at least once. The small units and exorbitant condo fees make it inappropriate for families, and most of the residents are older, single people or couples like our neighbors, two elderly African-American sisters who can be seen in the hallway on Sundays, dressed in matching hats, making their way shakily to church. These older folk are nicely offset by a changing tide of grad students who rent or sublet, and the proximity of the Peabody Conservatory and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra means the hallways often hum with the muted harmonies of practicing musicians.
Naturally, rumors and gossip abound— especially in the wake of a mysterious suicide that occurred five years ago, and a double shooting and stabbing in the basement’s controversial “Bottle Club” in 2008. A longtime rat problem persists, the windows rattle and the recent financial collapse has led to a number of units going into foreclosure. Despite all this, most of the time things are quiet and peaceful at The Belvedere. And when they’re not, they’re still interesting.
In fact, things have always been interesting at The Belvedere.
Designed as a showpiece for the golden age of hotels, The Belvedere was built with funds raised by subscription and bonds from the city’s wealthiest and most socially prominent investors, who wanted the city to have a luxurious central establishment— one that could accommodate social functions and meet the needs of well-heeled guests from out of town. Just a year after the doors formally opened on Dec. 10, 1903, the hotel’s popularity received an early boost from the destruction of so many of its downtown competitors in the 1904 Great Baltimore Fire. During its first few years of operation, The Belvedere was the location for many brilliant social affairs. Over the years, a long list of well-known actors, politicians, authors and musicians, from Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge to Liberace and Barry White, have spent time at the hotel.
While The Belvedere’s “upstairs” history is well-known, each additional year I’ve spent in our condo has made me more and more curious about the hotel’s “downstairs” life. So one sunny day last year, I walked a few blocks down Charles Street to the University of Baltimore’s Langsdale Library, where the archives of The Belvedere Hotel Corp. reside. Tom Hollowak, associate director for special collections, warned me that I had a tough job ahead. There were 65 boxes of documents covering the period between 1904 and 1970— mostly contracts, appraisals, minutes of meetings, financial records and tax statements. Not only were they dull, he said, but they were totally disorgan-ized.
In 2008, Hollowak received a call from a research assistant at cable TV network AMC who was working on season three of “Mad Men.” In the season’s first episode, aired in August 2009, Don Draper and Salvatore Romano take a trip to Baltimore. Since the episode is set in 1963, the two businessmen naturally stay at The Belvedere, which, at the time, was the best hotel in town. The researcher wanted to know whether the archive had any photographs or information that would indicate whether or not, in 1963, The Belvedere employed an elevator boy. It was not a surprising question, since the show’s producer, Baltimore-born Matthew Weiner, is a notorious stickler for period authenticity. However, due to the state of the archive, Hollowak was unable to provide an answer. In the episode, a compromise was made by having an employee get into the elevator along with Draper and Romano and ask them: “What floor?”
After two full days poking around among the damp and dusty documents, I discovered that, despite its reputation for elegance, the hotel’s finances have always been unstable. Following its glamorous opening, The Belvedere operated for only three years before it got into financial difficulty, and it first went into receivership in 1906. It was then bought by the Maryland Bank & Trust Co. for $1.5 million, but again met financial difficulty, and went into receivership for a second time in 1915. The building had already gone through five owners by September 1917, when it was sold for around $450,000 to the man who was to become its most memorable and charismatic proprietor, an eccentric, self-made millionaire named Charles H. Consolvo.
Born in 1871 to a prominent Virginia line, Col. Consolvo was an ambitious and forward-looking entrepreneur who took on quite a risk when he purchased The Belvedere. Five months earlier, the United States had entered World War I, and business interests were uncertain. Nevertheless, after a radical reorganization of management The Belvedere was soon transformed to such a degree that it was recognized as one of the country’s finest hostelries. A contemporary advertisement describes it as “Baltimore’s Largest and Leading Hotel.” In 1918, a suite consisting of a parlor, bedroom and bath cost anywhere from $10 to $35 per day; the least-expensive room was $5 a day, and all rooms had private baths. In the same year, a single room at the Stafford, The Belvedere’s closest competitor, was a mere $3.
In 1919, the hotel trade was set back by the introduction of Prohibition, but the Colonel carried on as though nothing had changed. A barbershop was introduced to the lobby, and a poolroom was constructed downstairs. In 1921, at the cost of $300 a week, Consolvo hired Ellicott City native Meyer Davis to supply his fashionable orchestra for The Belvedere’s swanky Charles Room. This occasioned some extra expenses: one grand piano at $891; piano tuning at $8.45 a time; six music stands at $25 and, on one occasion, a refund of $16.95 (“making allowance for the drummer”). Another expense, at $12 a week, was tea for the orchestra. During the period of Prohibition, tea was all The Belvedere could offer— officially, at least. (According to rumor, the Owl Bar was a notorious speakeasy, and the two owls mounted on the bar had eyes that allegedly blinked when a shipment had arrived.)
By the late 1920s, The Belvedere had become extremely popular, especially for train passengers traveling between New York and Miami, who would often break up their trip with a night in the swankiest hostelry in town. Receipts from 1929 suggest The Belvedere was buzzing with social activities. The girls of the Alpha Phi Sorority at Goucher College held their annual dance in what was then known as the Owl Room, retained for the evening at the cost of $53. Contestants in the National Beauty Pageant were also accommodated in the hotel, according to the records. Miss Eastern Michigan, Loraine Budge, stayed with her mother, Mrs. L.J. Budge, in Room 502, which is now our living room. In neighboring units resided Miss Bridgeport, Miss Ohio, Miss Great Lakes and Miss Reading, who needed to have her shoes repaired.
Despite all this excitement, however, the hotel was often in debt, and bills were rarely paid on time. The thrice-married Consolvo, who regularly socialized with celebrities like Charles Lindbergh, was rarely in residence himself, and his staff struggled to keep abreast of financial pressures. Prohibition was one problem; another was the guests who defaulted without paying their bills, or handed over bad checks. Freeloaders cost the hotel almost $6,000 a year, not including the additional money paid to lawyers and private detectives to track them down. Sometimes, young men out on the town would charge their bills to a parent’s account, as was the case with one father, who sent the following note to The Belvedere’s accountant on Aug. 29, 1923. “When I received your bill,” he wrote, “I could not understand how it was that an account of mine had remained unsettled so long (I have been accustomed all my life to settling all matters promptly), but now I realize it was an error ... You see, I will back my boys in any way, but I do not wish their bills mingled with mine…”
Legal fees were especially high in 1920, when The Belvedere was sued by lawyers on behalf of Mr. O.B. McLean, whose “two fingers were broken and badly mashed” when “a window in his room fell upon his left hand.” Records indicate that The Belvedere’s doctor on call was Irwin O. Ridgely, the former medical superintendent of Mercy Hospital, who retired in 1921 but kept a private practice at his home at 805 Park Ave. The Belvedere seems to have kept Dr. Ridgely on his toes. On Feb. 1, 1925, he was paid $75 for performing a “radical operation” on Mr. Andy Brown, whose work at the hotel gave him a “left inguinal hernia,” and $5 on Feb. 16, 1928, for “professional services rendered” on Susie Hobbs, who, during her stay at The Belvedere, suffered a “contusion of right chest.” In the same year, hotel guest Mr. E.E. McLinn required payment of $78 from the hotel “for damage done to Lady’s gown and underwear by waiter spilling hot water and coffee.”
During the Consolvo years, The Belvedere was always late filing income tax and paying lawyers’ bills. Demands accumulated from suppliers, too, including Whitman’s Chocolate Candy Confections, and A.C. McLoon & Co., providers of Maine and Canadian lobsters (The Belvedere’s unpaid lobster bill was $699). Reading through the records, one gets the sense that John Spedden, The Belvedere’s long-suffering auditor, was often at the end of his tether. “At present The Belvedere needs its money,” he informs one creditor. To another, he curtly remarks, “The reason why these notes were not attended to at the time was because we were hard pressed for cash owing to interest, taxes, etc.” Finally, he resorts to juggling tricks: “Please make out a dummy bill as above, and I think it will place our account in balance once again.”
By 1933, the beleaguered Belvedere once again went into receivership, and in 1935 it passed into the hands of Consolvo’s creditors. Thereafter, its longest owner was the Sheraton Corp., which purchased it in 1946 and ran it for 22 years as the Sheraton-Belvedere. These days, The Belvedere is owned and operated by the board of condominium owners. Prices are currently low for the units (some can be had for as little as $50,000), but condo fees can run as much as $1,000 per month.
I’m happy to report that anyone else interested in researching the hotel’s history will have an easier time of it than I did. Hollowak recently informed me that my visits to the archive had prompted the library to organize The Belvedere collection and make an overview of the contents available on a new website (see tinyurl.com/69rh6km).
I’m also happy to report that The Belvedere itself is doing well— and is financially more stable than during much of its history— mainly because the event company Truffles Catering, which owns the ground floor as well as the 12th and 13th floors, regularly books grand weddings and parties in the hotel’s four lavish ballrooms. So, although I may sometimes feel a little awkward walking my muddy bulldog through the lobby as a bride and groom emerge from the John Eager Howard Room, I rest assured that, as long as people continue to get married, The Belvedere will remain in good health— ideally for another 100 years, at least.