More than 100 young men, natty, neat, and grinning widely, stand in rows in the ballroom of the Emerson Hotel. They sport tuxedos and carnations and grasp the arms of their dates, girls in curled hair, plaid and chiffon, corsages tumbling from their shoulders or tight at their waists and wrists. My father is in the second row, a little bit Gregory Peck, more Buddy Holly, in his brushed back hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He, like all the other youngsters, was there at the Emerson Hotel for the Mount St. Joseph class of 1949 senior prom. It was a beautiful place, my father recalls, all marble and mirrors, high ceilings and ornate carpets, all the more glamorous in the eyes of an 18-year-old.
The scene of numerous high school proms, wedding receptions and social club dinner-dances, the grand old Emerson was the place to hold a special event. To businessmen in the hotel’s early days, it was a place to set up shop in the “Sample Room,” close to transportation and in the heart of the merchant district. To servicemen during World War II, the Emerson was a place to stay while on short leave. To gourmands, it was the site of fine dining. And to politicos, it was the home of Maryland’s Democratic Party. Late in its life, if you were looking for a tiki bar, you could find that too, at the Emerson.
The hotel was the brainchild of Capt. Isaac Emerson, the man behind Bromo-Seltzer and its parent company, the Emerson Drug Co. Legend has it that while dining at the Belvedere Hotel on an especially hot day, Emerson removed his coat and was promptly ordered by the dining room maitre d’ to put it back on. Rather than complying, Emerson is said to have announced, “I’ll build my own hotel and wear whatever I please!” and thus hired Joseph Evans Sperry to create the 220-foot-high, 17-story building at the corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets. Work began on the structure in February 1910, and the Emerson opened its doors a quick 20 months later.
From the beginning, the hotel embodied both worldly elegance and a Maryland pedigree. There was marble everywhere, from the floors, columns and borders of the hotel’s main entrance to the men’s toilet and the barbershop, the latter described as “glistening white like an arctic snow scene, giving at once an effect and a reality of absolute sanitation.” The shop’s marble wainscoting was likened to “the walls of a hospital operating room,” though there are no reports of Sweeney Todd-like activities going on there. (In 1949, much of the marble was covered up by wood paneling in a renovation intended to give the hotel a “streamlined” look.)
The multi-tiered chandeliers in the lobby dangled from a carved ceiling festooned with plaster rosettes, and dusky pink tapestries and carpets and gold-colored columns gave the main dining room an almost ecclesiastical air. Tucked into various nooks of the hotel was a men’s writing room, a beauty shop and 11 “private parlors” where guests could entertain clients or friends. The Emerson hosted presidents (Taft, Wilson and Harding), and all means of celebrated figures from Tallulah Bankhead and Jimmy Durante to Charles Lindbergh and William Jennings Bryan.
But for all its worldliness, the Emerson also paid homage to its local roots, from the embossed crest of a canvasback duck bobbing on the water’s surface, and renderings of a fish, crab and terrapin on an undated pamphlet from the hotel’s early days to 20 oil paintings featuring subjects like “Tonging Oysters and Treading Clams” and “Chesapeake Bay Dog Retrieving Geese” that graced the walls of the Chesapeake Room.
And long before the current fashion for local ingredients, the Chesapeake Room offered a traditional Maryland-themed menu made from products raised on Capt. Emerson’s Green Spring Valley estate, Brooklandwood (now the home of St. Paul School for Boys). The hotel’s milk and cream came from Brooklandwood’s herd of Guernsey and Jersey cows, and the estate also produced chicken and eggs, as well as lettuces, tomatoes and other vegetables. The hotel even bottled its own water from a spring near Brooklandwood.
Despite its grandness, however, the Emerson was, in the words of the hotel’s first manager William H. Barse, “a hotel to serve the public [and] the public means commercial people, society people, wealthy people and those with moderate means.” Rooms were let for $2 to $4 a day at the hotel’s opening, and during World War II, cots were set up in the lobby for servicemen who couldn’t find or afford a room. Some hotel employees would later remember the quirks of day-to-day business in such a large hotel, like the time a tipsy guest embraced a marble statue and sent it crashing across a marble floor, or when a lily pond outside a 17th-floor suite suddenly began producing frogs that jumped from their rooftop garden to their demise— or made their way into the hotel at odd moments. Rumor had it one frog jumped into a lady’s décolletage.
But perhaps the most colorful of the Emerson’s guests were the members of Maryland’s Democratic Party who for many years called the Emerson home (the Republicans claimed the Lord Baltimore). Elections, of course, were celebrated here, but work went on daily in all corners of the hotel, from elevators to small lobbies. Sun writer Louis Peddicord reported in 1971 that “officially the B’Hays and the B’Hosses had their headquarters in Room 441 of the [Emerson] hotel, but unofficially, there was a Democrat behind every potted palm during election campaigns in Maryland.”
In 1963, however, the Emerson gained a notoriety that had nothing to do with political wheeling and dealing, when a drunk white Charles County tobacco farmer named William Zantzinger berated, then struck, black hotel waitress Hattie Carroll with his cane, causing her death. The incident and the trial surrounding it became notorious not only for the accounts of Zantzinger’s boorish and racist behavior but for the mere six-month sentence he received after being convicted of the crime of manslaughter. The light sentence prompted Bob Dylan to immortalize Carroll’s death in one of his most powerful songs supporting civil rights, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (“William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’”).
Six years later, in 1969, the hotel was sold at auction and re-sold several times before being purchased by an affiliate of Equitable Trust in early 1971. The Emerson’s contents were auctioned soon after with a mural of Francis Scott Key going to the White Coffee Pot restaurant, and beds, chairs and bureaus going to Loyola University (then College) for a new women’s dorm.
In June 1971, after the building was razed, concerned Fells Point residents called police after the Buzz Berg Wrecking Co. dumped remains of the Emerson into the harbor near the warehouse at Belt’s Wharf. In 1989, what is now known as the Sun Trust building was erected on the site.