Baltimore, Maryland - I can't get enough of the old photos hanging outside the grand Calvert Ballroom at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, all those well-dressed ladies and gents sitting at the cloth-covered tables, gazing at the camera as if it'll show them the future.
There they are, the ladies of the Alumnae Association of Eastern High at their annual dinner in 1929. Here's the yearly banquet of the Florists' Club. Other organisations — a nurses group, Sun Oil employees — wining and dining in 1929, 1930, 1963. All having a grand time in the crowded banquet hall of what was then, no doubt, Baltimore's premier hotel.
Ah, those were the days! The 440-room old girl just recently reopened after a multimillion-dollar renovation by Rubell Hotels, the third or fourth makeover in her long up-and-down history, and my husband and I are wandering about, taking in the new decor. It's all sleek and contemporary, in a stylish black-white-and-gray colour scheme. And it includes up-to-date elements (that big table with all the outlets just outside the bar is the latest hotel rage, a public workstation) and a whimsical pop here and there (big black-metal lions among the sofas and armchairs in the lobby). I'm glad they've kept the portrait of the Lord himself — George Calvert, that would be — overlooking the whole affair from his perch on the wall, too.
It's these photos, though, that make me stare and stare. This is the hotel that was, I think, Baltimore's happening place. And things can never be quite the same, can they, as they were in the heady days when the grande dame was young, the beautiful new girl on the block, with her classical curlicues rising 23 stories high. When it opened in 1928, the Lord Baltimore was the largest hotel in Maryland.
But that was then. Now, a small forest of steel-and-glass behemoths loom far above the Lord Baltimore, which looks like a delicate little old-fashioned flower in their midst. (It was also the last high-rise with classical ornamentation built in downtown Charm City.) I guess you can't go back to the glory days.
Then again, maybe you can. Or at least come close to them, and the Lord Baltimore's making a pretty good run at that. The afternoon we arrive, the hotel's abuzz with comings and goings, and the LB Tavern, an open bar area at the back of the lobby, is roaring. Yikes! Are we going to be able to rise above this din?
Well, of course we are — precisely 16 stories above, to our corner room, which is a welcome surprise. We'd tried to book one of these even-roomier-than-the-roomy-regular-rooms options online, but no-go. All booked up, the website said. But the cheerful check-in clerk finds one for us after all. “People love those rooms,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “When they come back, they always say, 'I want that corner room. Can I have that room?' “
It's a very generous chamber (360 square feet), with windows on two sides. Not that the views are eye-popping, although we do gaze down upon a small green space tucked between buildings on one side. Apart from the sleek king-size bed, the decor is minimal for such a large space — one easy chair, a desk with two chairs, a flat-screen TV. But that means a nice, open feel, despite the rather dark charcoal walls, which showcase some interesting art that's described in a little card on the desk. “Dreaming of Damien Hirst,” one print's called, and the other, “Dreaming of Jackson Pollock.” If you know who's who, you can imagine what the artwork looks like.
I'm a little surprised that the “closet” is just a curtain-covered nook, but hey, it works. The bathroom's nice and modernised, though the toiletries — they're the “green” kind, that come in supposedly biodegradable containers that still feel like plastic — are a little on the thin side: just soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion. No shower caps or vanity kits here. At least, points out my grateful husband, there's a coffee maker. And the free WiFi's terrific.
We ride down to the lobby in one of the vintage elevators for dinner in the French Kitchen, the white-tablecloth restaurant without the tablecloths, as my husband cleverly describes it, where, to be honest, I'm more agog at the rococo decor of the Versailles Room, with its soaring ceiling and golden pilasters, than I am at the food. Still, it's a nice meal, and the staff is friendly.
Afterward, we retire for a bit to the bar, which has quieted down from the afternoon, although a few hardy souls are still hanging in there at 10pm. And even as we're sitting and chatting over our after-dinner wine, more patrons come in off the street and settle into the cushy gray armchairs.
The LB may not be the premier hotel in town anymore. But it's still a happening place.
The Lord Baltimore Hotel
20 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore
Rooms from $119 (about R1 200), but rates may vary