FROSTBURG — — In the heart of this town on the old U.S. National Road in Western Maryland, a woman leans on the front desk of an 1890s-era hotel, her face a study in mixed emotions.
Tina Storey loves her work as office manager of Failinger's Hotel Gunter, the grande dame of lodging in Frostburg with its polished oak staircase, Victorian settees and zillions of artifacts and displays that evoke the history of the so-called "Mountain Side of Maryland."
But she's still grieving the woman who revived the place.
Thelma "Beanie" Failinger, bought the former Hotel Gunter with her husband, Jake, in 1986, and spent the next 28 years restoring, upgrading and filling it with personal touches.
She died last month at age 81, leaving hotel staffers and residents feeling as though they've lost a friend and guiding light.
"Right up to the end, Beanie was here all the time, whether it was hanging wallpaper, painting something, or cutting up fruit for our continental breakfasts," Storey said. "We all thought she'd go on forever. I still can't believe she's gone."
Her labor of love is the focus of this, the final installment of "Postcards From U.S. 40," The Baltimore Sun's series about life along Maryland's longest numbered highway.
The road, once called the U.S. National Pike and now known variously as Maryland 144, U.S. Route 40 Scenic, Baltimore Pike and more, it, too, links past and present to a future coming into view.
It slows down to become Main Street through Historic Downtown Frostburg, a quarter-mile of brick buildings that collectively form an entry on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
A few doors east of Failinger's stands the Palace Theatre, which started life in the early 1900s as a nickelodeon, and still hosts concerts and independent films.
Across the street is the Princess Restaurant, a local landmark that was born as a candy shop in 1939, became a popular diner in the 1940s and now is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Third-generation owner George W. Pappas expressed his sorrow over the passing of his friend, Beanie, whose hotel he salutes with pictures on his restaurant's placemats.
Like Failinger, Pappas has never aspired to live anywhere else.
"This is a very close, very strong community," he said.
When Thelma and Kermit "Jake" Failinger, a construction company owner, bought the hotel, few believed it had much of a future.
For decades, their daughter Debbie Buskirk wrote, "this once grand hotel sat boarded-up and vacant except for the hundreds of pigeons taking up housing in the rooms and halls. [It] was a blight for the small town of Frostburg."
That was a far cry from its promising beginnings.
William R. Percy, the son of a prominent local family, and his son-in-law, Gladstone Hitchens, began construction in 1895, according to archives at the Frostburg Museum.
When it opened as the Hotel Gladstone on Jan. 1, 1897, it boasted 100 rooms, a barbershop and a café, not to mention tennis courts and a petting farm that featured a tame fawn. A fifth-floor observation deck offered views of the town and surrounding Allegheny Mountains.
"Guests were attended by bellboys in brown uniforms with smoked pearl buttons and a chef from New York," a history available at the hotel reads.
The venture soon failed, but William Gunter bought the place in 1903 for $35,000, renamed it, and spent the next two decades making additions — electric lighting in 1911, a 175-seat dining room in 1924 and a pressed tin ceiling and mahogany bar around 1925.
By that time, the place was, by one account, "one of the finest hotels and restaurants between Baltimore and Pittsburgh."
Guests can still admire the tavern's tin ceiling, marble-trimmed bar and brass chandeliers. The old dining room, now a ballroom, hosts weddings.
Even more engaging is what might be called the hotel's underworld appointments.
National Road travelers have always meant brisk business. During the early 1900s, so many happened to be federal agents transporting prisoners from the Midwest to Washington, D.C., that Gunter built a jail cell in the basement.
The cell is still there, adjacent to a bathroom that's still in use. Guests can see its iron gates and peer inside to see a lonesome-looking mannequin on a cot.
Just down the hall is the kind of attraction one rarely sees in a hotel: a stone-covered space with the dimly lit feel of a dungeon.
Here, during Prohibition, Gunter's ran a speakeasy that doubled as a cockfighting arena.
Operators had a local brass band play from a balcony as moonshiners smuggled liquor in from the rear.
"They must have had some wild parties in here," Storey marveled as she showed guests the stone cockfighting ring, an old wooden icebox and the bar.
By all accounts, a love of history inspired the Failingers when they decided to purchase the hotel for $55,000 and restore it.
Evidence of the transformation is everywhere. Photos illustrate the former disrepair. Old newspaper clippings salute the purchase. Polaroids show the Failingers stripping, sanding and rebuilding the stairwell, hanging drywall and wallpaper and installing a sprinkler system.
As workers dug in, they unearthed more relics: A Gladstone's menu, a porcelain bed pan, baby clothes. All are on display in a sprawling collection in the basement.
Jake Failinger, now 84, is no longer the daily presence he once was. His role was to handle the finances.
Beanie, everyone says, was the one who brought the old place back to life.
"She was always up on a ladder, doing whatever needed to be done, right up until the end," said longtime housekeeper Sherry Presley. "She was the heart of this hotel."
"She poured her spirit into this place," adds Betty Klipstein, who has lived in one of the hotel's 20 tidy apartments for six years.
"She never seemed to stop. I called her the Energizer Bunny."
Beanie was helping spiff up her favorite room — a parlor in which she displayed antique dolls — on Aug. 17 when she suffered a heart attack.
At the Princess, Pappas was planning a 75th anniversary fete set to begin Monday, and Failinger's is already booked for the coming Appalachian Festival.
Its usual complement of Frostburg State visitors, bicyclists and curious motorists still stay overnight for a maximum of $96 a room. But its future is uncertain.
Family members are managing operations but have other careers. Jake has floated the idea of selling. His current asking price: $1.4 million.
To Failinger's fans, just being around his late wife was priceless.
"Beanie made you feel special, whether you were or not," Klipstein said. "She was such a grand lady."
If you go
Failinger's Hotel Gunter, at 11 W. Main St. in Frostburg, features 11 hotel rooms, 20 apartments, a bar, a restaurant and a banquet hall. For more information, call 301-689-6511.
About the series
Postcards from U.S. 40 was a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Read the complete series at baltimoresun.com/postcards