For an 80-year-old lady, the Lord Baltimore Hotel looks pretty good. Sure, she’s had a little work done. A few lifts and tweaks. A lobby bar put where her front desk was. Meeting rooms where the hair salons and haberdashers that once graced her mezzanine level had been.
But in the Versailles ballroom off the main lobby (once the hotel’s formal dining room), arching mirrored glass windows still reflect the dazzle of white marble, crystal chandeliers and wedding gowns. The Coffee House, though stripped of its Danish modern furniture, still welcomes visitors, now as a coffee bar featuring Starbucks. Upstairs in the main ballroom, Mabel and John Giorgi’s 1940s murals of historic Baltimore and its founders decorate the walls. And, if you look closely in the historic lobby, you’ll find vestiges of the bombshell beauty of a hotel the Lord Baltimore once was in the marble that fans out above the elevators, the brass rails and original mail chute, and in the spectacularly lovely ceiling, a meadow of original carved flowers on a green lawn.
Now officially known as the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore, the hotel was the brainchild of Kent County native and former Caswell Hotel manager Harry Busick, whose goal in 1928 was “to build in the most central spot in fast-developing Baltimore a ‘super hotel’ which would provide adequate facilities for the city’s expanding activities.” The Lord Baltimore was a fast development itself; the 22-story, 700-room, Art Deco testament of brick and stone was built in less than seven months, opening its doors at 20 W. Baltimore St. on Dec. 29, 1928. An early brochure boasts amenities including “circulating ice water” and radios in rooms, and notes that rates begin at $3 a night for a single with bath and go to $13 and $17 for suites. As late as 1972, its brochure touted it as “Maryland’s largest hotel.”
Busick’s three sons took over the hotel after their father’s death, but by 1960, they’d sold it for $7 million to New Yorker H.R. Weissberg, who undertook a considerable renovation. Under Weissberg’s ownership, tall black columns, candy-apple red leather armchairs and small white tables filled the Normandy lounge portion of the lobby; bedrooms and suites were decked out in mint green walls and drapes; and the carpet in the now defunct Diamondback Lounge became a sea of red emblazoned with terrapins. Weissberg filed for bankruptcy in 1967 and the hotel went up for auction in 1969.
Another costly renovation began in 1970, shrinking the number of rooms, which were now dressed in shag carpeting, electric yellow bedspreads and television sets (“most of them color,” a hotel brochure assured), to fewer than 600. One of the most touted additions of the early ’70s renovation was the Grogshop, described in The Sun in 1972 as a “$400,000 restaurant lounge that will feature hot sandwiches, beer, cocktails and a band from 5 p.m. to closing. Waitresses will be uniformed in micro-mini skirts and low-cut blouses.”
But in addition to this “swinging modern version of an old-style pub” (as one hotel brochure put it), the Lord Baltimore also hosted high tea. That’s when Marguarite Eberwein-Budacz, a corporate executive assistant and 20-year employee of the Lord Baltimore, fell in love with the hotel. “My grandparents would bring me down,” she remembers. “We would get all dressed up in our Sunday best clothes and wear our white gloves just like the movie stars. And I always dreamed about working here as the concierge.”
During Eberwein-Budacz’s tenure, which began in 1989 and continues today, the hotel has hosted luminaries like Chris Rock and Snoop Dogg, author Joel Osteen and comedian George Burns, as well as, briefly, the Orlando Peabody Ducks, who lodged in the bathtub of one of the Parlor Suites, making a daily trip down in the elevator to the lobby, where they waddled across the red carpet and jumped into the fountain to do a little performance for the guests, recalls Eberwein-Budacz. (The tradition started at the Peabody’s sister hotel in Memphis).
If the walls could talk, we could hear the details of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit, or Carol Channing requesting a gas mask from Mayor Schaefer’s office during a five-alarm blaze that struck the hotel in 1978 while she was appearing in “Hello, Dolly!” at the Morris Mechanic Theatre across the street. We would get to the bottom of the ghostly sightings that have taken place on the hotel’s 19th floor, where men jumped from the terrace to their deaths during the Great Depression. And we would finally know the identity of the elegant woman who, in 1931, abandoned a 2-year-old child in one of the hotel’s rooms. According to a 1971 article in The Sun, a judge gave the child the surname “Lord,” before sending him to the Nursery and Children’s Hospital.
The Lord Baltimore was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, cementing its future in the landscape (a fate denied other grand downtown hotels like the Southern and the Emerson). She has appeared in movies (parts of Renee Zellweger’s recent film “My One and Only” were shot on site, as were scenes from “Guarding Tess” (1994) with Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine), and Pasadena, Md., physician and novelist Joan Lehmann set “Heaven Below,” her Depression-era story of a coal miner who finds work as a hotel bellhop, at the Lord Baltimore. As she says, the hotel was “an absolutely glorious gem of the era.”
At 80-plus, the Lord Baltimore is older and her wrinkles are preserved under heavy layers of makeup. She has lost her uniformed elevator operators and her movie theater (now a lecture room for convention meetings). But she has been, and always will be, royalty. Happy birthday, lady. Eighty is the new 40.