Friday, August 21, 2015

Taking risk, far away from the waterfront

For what seems eternity, the downtown sections of Franklin and Mulberry Streets were depressing traffic sewers with not much to look at except vacant buildings. Not entirely true, of course, there is the glorious pair of the Enoch Pratt Library and the Basilica of the Assumption as a stark exception, the Unitarian Church, the new Unity Church, there is the Congress/Kernan Hotel struggling along as an apartment building, there is for some years Wendy Blair's St James Place, there is the fabled H&H camping store with an artist hub above it, and then there is, of course the French Companies headquarters at the corner of Franklin and Eutaw where I have my offices, a building that started as the University of Maryland's Dental School. In between there are a thriving tiny bar, the The Place Lounge, a few hair-salons a cluster of small gallery spaces which occupy most of the 500 block of West Franklin.
Refreshed, cleaned up and aiming for
upward mobile travelers: Hotel Indigo
on 24 W. Franklin Street
On Mulberry, less happened, the biggest change in decades was the demise of Marticks, a building anybody could easily miss anyway, so tiny and sad it always looked, even when Marticks was still serving lunch and dinner behind the windows that were boarded for use as a speak easy in the prohibition period. And yes, in the old YMCA building, there opened a small hotel "Hi".

The glacial pace of change has shifted into what can only be considered high gear based on that almost stagnant past:

It began with the 171 apartments at 520 Park Avenue (they do overlook Franklin Street thanks to a vacant lot in front, now also slated for development) with rents above $3 dollars a foot (developer lingo, but a far cry from the $1 which seemed to be the ceiling around here). It continued with 501 Franklin, former nursing home rooms converted to 138 student apartments (still under construction). Even on Mulberry Street, across from Marticks a big hole is dug for 68 new affordable apartments developed by Enterprise Homes. The entire block where Marticks sits is advertised for redevelopment by BDC.
501 West Franklin: nursing home to student apartments

Last month the Hotel Indigo opened its doors luring more guests to its 162 room quarters that are targeted to be way more affluent than the market of previous very budget hotel incarnations here. Located diagonally across from the Pratt Library and across from a now defunct soup-kitchen the hotel is quite far away from its competiors who more or less all cluster within a short walk of the Inner Harbor.

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The hotel's "philosophy" is interesting in that it explains to some degree why the chain is trying to make it work in a location that not many people venture to, even though it is but a stone-throw from the famous cathedral.
No two neighborhoods are alike. Neither are any two Hotel Indigo® properties. When you stay with us, you’re not just staying anywhere, you’re staying somewhere—within a vibrant community, in a unique boutique hotel that combines authentic local experiences, modern design and intimate service with the peace of mind and consistency of staying with one of the world’s largest hotel groups.
Clearly, in an attempt to reach various segments of the travelling population, the hotels have embarked on niche branding away from the bland sameness, towards local, authentic, and unique. How does such a "from farm to table" approach translate into actual design in the hospitality industry? Randy Sovich, the architect, designed with this project his first hotel.

That the developer, Focus Development picked his
Wallpaper sketches behind the headboard
small East Baltimore practice speaks for a serious search for authentic design. Sovich reports that he had to study the area five blocks around, to reflect it in his approach and says that the colors and the furniture selection were influenced by this research. Not having had the benefit of having himself explain the veracity of this claim in the guestrooms, I found the local references rather shallow: Custom wallpaper sketches depicting Baltimore scenes on the wall behind the headboards were the most unusual perhaps, otherwise there were framed old photos of Baltimore and some murals decorating hallway walls and meeting rooms predictably named after Mencken and Poe.

This hotel sits smack in the historic Cathedral Hill District, once Baltimore's most fashionable address with an largely intact set of historic structures all around, not last a set of grand churches. For this to find, the folks have to leave the hotel.
The Poet bar and restaurant with ceiling painting

Regardless of these branding exercises, or instead of quibbling with the fact that roof skylights were closed for ventilation instead of illuminating the top level meeting rooms, the lobby the adjacent restaurant bar "Poet" and the "library" deserve undivided praise: They are very welcoming and a well designed blend of old architecture with contemporary sensibilities for decor, offering a new happy hour or business lunch joint west of Charles Street where selection was extremely slim.

The fact that Focus, Shaffin Jetha and Indigo gave a go to this $23 million investment, including acquisition of the historic gem from 1907 built by the YMCA, and serious upgrade of the 1982 hotel conversion  can only be commended and hoped to have success. Guests that venture out of its front door will, indeed, have much more to discover than Bubba Gump or the Cheesecake Factory.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

I toured the hotel on Thursday as part of a ULI gathering. 

SUN article

Reception desk across from the front door

Guest room
Neighborhood views from the guest rooms

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