Inside the Ivy Hotel at North Calvert and East Biddle streets, a curved staircase rises three stories past leaded windows, leading to rooms with canopied beds, fireplaces and bathrooms with heated French limestone floors and deep tubs.
Set to open in mid-June, the tiny hotel in a converted mansion underwent a makeover costing in excess of $18 million. It will be one of only two Baltimore hotels in its price range, with 18 rooms and suites ranging from $475 to $1,475 a night. A few suites at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore command even higher rates.
"Everyone might not recognize it, but we think Baltimore is ready for this," said David W. Garrett, managing director of the Ivy Hotel. "We think this will be one of the finest urban hotels in the country."
Yet some observers wonder if it's possible for a hotel to command such prices in a location not far from the Baltimore City Detention Center and with views of the Johnston Square neighborhood from at least one room.
"I think it's very ambitious for Baltimore," said Rod Petrik, a hospitality industry analyst for Stifel Nicolaus & Co.
The city's hotel market is generally weak, he said, with both luxury and middle-of-the-road hotels sometimes unable to command the rates they desire.
The Ivy Hotel's 35,000 square feet began life as a Gilded Age brownstone at the corner of Biddle and Calvert streets that was commissioned by prominent banker John Gilman, who died right before it was completed. After living there several years, Gilman's widow sold it to William Painter, an inventor and president of Crown Cork and Seal Co., a longtime Baltimore manufacturing stalwart.
It passed through a couple of other wealthy families before the city began using it in the 1980s as the Inn at Government House to house visiting dignitaries. The new hotel complex includes a new addition and two adjacent brownstones, with its formal entrance moved to Biddle Street.
Two families of investors who previously collaborated to restore the Bromo Seltzer Tower as artists' studios, the Azolas and the Browns, bought the property in 2012 for $750,000. The principals include Eddie Brown, chairman and CEO of Brown Capital Management, whose office is one block north of the hotel.
Martin Azola, who has been restoring historic properties for 40 years and who sits on the board of the Maryland Historical Trust, called the Ivy Hotel "the culmination of that career."
The hotel's guest rooms include cozier spaces that lead to a new balcony and a courtyard, and large suites tucked into the alcoves of the former attic. Each room features a California king-size bed, and turn-down service is standard with different fresh 400-thread-count linens every night.
The decor of every room is unique, with one-of-a-kind art, different color palettes, animal skin rugs, custom built-in cabinets and decorative items like large geodes. Coffeemakers are hidden inside hand-painted cabinets, each of them done by a different Maryland Institute College of Art student.
Some 60 artists and artisans worked on the hotel, Garrett said.
Guests may access a full-service spa with massages and several sumptuous common rooms including a library, a music room and a conservatory with African-style masks and decorations. Architectural details from the original mansion survive, including intricate, hand-painted molding on the walls of a former library turned breakfast room.
The room rates include breakfast, afternoon tea, a car and driver, gratuities and other amenities, everything except dinner and spa services. Its website likens the experience to staying "at the home of a generous friend."
The Ivy will not be associated with any hotel flag or brand, said Garrett, who once headed the luxury Relais & Chateaux association of high-end, individually owned hotels. The closest is the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.
Garrett said the Ivy Hotel "exceeds most any other project I've ever worked on."
The hotel also will feature a modern American restaurant called Magdalena that will be open to the public. The restaurant's Spanish theme was inspired by a John Singer Sargent painting of a dancing woman, which is replicated on a wall by the entrance. It uses part of the former mansion's basement, and one dining room contains an original wall safe made by Baltimore-based Miller Safe and Iron Works, which went out of business in the early 1900s.
Garrett declined to say how much was spent on the renovations but said it was "well in excess" of $18 million. Azola said the final figure is still being determined. Brown did not respond to a request for comment on the project.
While Petrik is skeptical such a hotel can lure travelers in Baltimore with room rates in that range, he acknowleges that luxury boutique hotels are booming.
"The concept makes sense, it's just whether or not you can get the rates that they need," Petrik said. "But boutique hotels are one of the fastest growing segments in the lodging industry. There are more business and leisure travelers that don't want the big brand box hotels. There's no appeal to the convention hotels if you're not attending a convention."
The walkability of the Mount Vernon and Midtown-Belvedere neighborhoods would be a bonus, he said, adding that it would be critical for the Magdalena to turn a profit.
Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and general manager of Hotel Indigo in Mount Vernon, called the Ivy Hotel "a really cool unique concept."
"I think there is a niche for that particular market that I think is untapped in Baltimore City," he said. "I think it could be very successful. I hope that the guests of the hotel will be out and about and supporting the neighborhood."
Curtis said he thought the hotel could spur more business development along Calvert and St. Paul streets and would benefit bars and restaurants like Iggies and a bar under construction in an old firehouse on Calvert Street.
"I think it'll be a lot more growth on that side of the neighborhood," he said.
While there are some other boutique hotels in Baltimore, their rooms go for hundreds of dollars less than what the Ivy plans to ask. Only the Four Seasons has rooms costing more with water-view executive suites starting at $1,500 a night, others going for $2,000 and $2,500, and three, including the Presidential Suite, requiring a call to the hotel.
Azola said the project, which received about $2 million in federal historic tax credits, was difficult and complicated. For example, he said, the team bought a three-ton mantelpiece from a castle in France, which traveled halfway across the Atlantic Ocean before they determined the floors could not handle its weight. It was an expensive mistake, but in the end he thinks the investment is worth it.
"For all these years in Baltimore there hasn't been anything like this," Azola said.