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Back Story: Lord Baltimore Hotel undergoing face-lift

Rubell Hotels doing seven-month, multimillion-dollar restoration of landmark city hotel

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:01 PM EST, November 7, 2013

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The venerable Lord Baltimore Hotel, last of the city's grand hostelries, is poised for a rebirth after undergoing a seven-month, multimillion-dollar restoration that celebrates its past while making it a 21st-century destination for guests and those out for a night on the town.

And along with freshly painted and decorated rooms — both public and private — the Lord Baltimore, formerly the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore, has a new owner.

The hotel, which has stood at the corner of Baltimore and Hanover streets since its opening in late 1928, was purchased by Rubell Hotels, whose principals are Don, Mera and Jason Rubell, in August for $10 million.

The Rubells are hardly strangers when it comes to operating hotels, which they view as being something more than a place to lay your head on a pillow, change clothes or conduct business. The Rubells see hotels as being essential and necessary components of any city's cultural life, and they say they intend to make the Lord Baltimore a downtown place where people will want to gather.

In addition to the Lord Baltimore, hotels under the Miami-based Rubell imprimatur include the Albion Hotel, the Art Deco masterpiece in Miami's South Beach, and the Capitol Skyline Hotel in Washington.

The Rubells are also the founders of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, a contemporary art museum under the direction of Jason Rubell and his sister, Jennifer.

The Rubells' new property, the Lord Baltimore, is a French Renaissance confection topped by a landmark green copper-clad cupola. It was designed by New York architect William Lee Stoddard.

The hotel was commissioned by Harry Busick, a Kent County native and the owner of the Lord Baltimore Hotel Co. who had been manager of the Caswell Hotel, which had formerly occupied the site at 20 W. Baltimore St.

The original 700-room, 23-story hotel cost $2 million and opened its doors Dec. 28, 1928. About 1,200 guests, including Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, who was the first to sign its guest register, stepped into a lobby decorated with palms, ferns and cut flowers. An orchestra played at the top of the marble stairs that led from the lobby to the main second-floor dining room.

John Calvert of Philadelphia, who was the oldest representative of the family of the Lords Baltimore, founders of Maryland, gave a short address to the invited guests.

Through the intervening years, which saw bankruptcies, a series of owners and multiple face-lifts, the Lord Baltimore somehow managed to survive with many of its major original components intact. But some items have been replaced over the years.

"The original chandelier in the lobby was sold off during one of the bankruptcies to pay bills," said general manager Gene-Michael Addis.

"The Rubells fell in love with the hotel and have a vision of what they want to do here, and we're going to keep the '20s feel in the lobby," said Addis. "We're turning this into a four-star property."

The hotel was redesigned by Scott Sanders, a New York and Hamptons-based interior decorator whose specialty is American style.

The 440-room hotel will be decorated with original artwork from the Rubell Family Collection. Its rooms will also include state-of-the-art technology, refrigerators and safes.

The odor of fresh paint was everywhere during a recent tour, as were the sounds of hammers. While the work goes on, the hotel remains open.

The former Versailles Room on the second floor will emerge as a French restaurant. It will be named the Matisse Kitchen and Tavern after the extensive collection of Matisse paintings collected by Baltimore's Cone sisters that are now at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The catering manager who will oversee the food operation is executive chef Bryan Sullivan.

Other public spaces to be renovated are the first-floor coffee shop, which will be rechristened as the Lord Baltimore Bakery. The Lord Baltimore Library and Tavern, which will replicate a European pub, will feature book-lined walls and an operating fireplace, with seating for 40.

The old Oak Room in the lower-level lobby will be restored and used for private dining, said Addis.

The massive Calvert grand ballroom with its two vintage Baccarat crystal chandeliers will be returned to its 1928 grandeur.

Addis made a startling discovery: a room in the southwestern corner of the building that had originally been a speakeasy during Prohibition.

"We're putting it back and we're going to call it Speakeasy," he said.

On the 19th floor — which reportedly has its own ghost — Addis led a visitor to the roof, which will have something no other Baltimore hotel has: two roof gardens.

Addis expects to hotel to be fully restored by early next year.

"After all, they built it in seven months," he said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com