When it opened in 1984 after a million-dollar renovation, the building at Cathedral and Biddle streets was hailed as Baltimore's first urban inn -- the beginning of a wave of small, upscale hotels that would provide an alternative to larger, convention-oriented operations downtown.
More than a decade later, the inn's original developers have packed their bags and checked out. But the building is doing better than ever under new owners who are remodeling it from bottom to top.
Paul Bragaw and Collin Clarke, co-owners of the four-star Mr. Mole Bed and Breakfast in Bolton Hill, expanded this spring by buying the inn at 58 W. Biddle St. -- the former Society Hill Hotel.
They renamed the building the Abacrombie Badger Bed and Breakfast and opened May 5. Its restaurant space has been leased to well-known chef Ed Rogers, formerly of Raphael's in Little Italy. He calls his new restaurant Tesso Tana, Italian for Badger's Den.
When all 12 guest suites are remodeled by September -- eight are already open -- Badger's will be the largest bed and breakfast operation in the Baltimore area.
"We're changing the nature of it from a hotel to a bed-and-breakfast," he said. "That's a state of mind as much as anything else. . . . One thing we're not is a cookie cutter place."
Mr. Bragaw said he and Mr. Clarke have wanted for some time to launch a second bed and breakfast to supplement Mr. Mole, which has been very successful since its opening in 1991.
Located at 1601 Bolton St. and named after a character from "Wind in the Willows," Mr. Mole is one of just three bed and breakfasts in Maryland with a four-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide. But it has only five guest suites, limiting potential for profit.
When the Society Hill Hotel came on the market last year, Mr. Bragaw said, he and his partner concluded it would be an ideal way to expand because of its proximity to Bolton Hill. "It's manageable. It allows us to be personally involved in both places, without great stress."
The inn occupies the 163-year-old former home of Maj. Thomas Biddle, a prominent Union officer during the Civil War. (Biddle Street got its name, however, from Catherine Biddle Lux, a Philadelphia socialite in the 18th century.)
Like many grand Victorian houses in the city, Major Biddle's residence was divided into apartments after the original owners moved out.
It was converted to an inn starting in 1983 by Thomas Kleinman and Judith Campbell of Society Hill Associates L.P., the same group that developed the Society Hill Hotel of Philadelphia.
The Biddle Street property was the first of three inns that the Society Hill group ran in Baltimore, along with Government House on Calvert Street and the Society Hill Hotel-Hopkins in Charles Village. But the group ran into financial problems in the early 1990s and defaulted on its loan from Baltimore's Police and Fire Employees Retirement Fund, which subsequently became the owner.
Mr. Bragaw and Mr. Clarke made an offer last fall and came to terms with the pension fund earlier this year. The acquisition and renovation of Badger's represents an investment of more than $500,000.
Mr. Bragaw said he believes the previous owners' financial troubles reflect their management practices rather than Baltimore's economic climate or the building's location.
He contends that the urban inn concept is still valid for Baltimore, and he sees the cultural area as an ideal spot for one. "It's a natural, with the Lyric, the symphony hall, the light rail line and all the businesses in the area. If the proposed performing arts center goes through, I'd be ecstatic."
Mr. Clarke is changing the decor to make the rooms lighter and different in appearance from each other, as they are in Bolton Hill. Rates range from $79 to $129 per night. The name comes from another "Wind in the Willows" character, Badger.
The owners made up the first name Abacrombie because they thought it suited the character and also would make their inn the first in the phone book.
"There's a little bit of method to our madness," Mr. Bragaw said.
Other Society Inns
Two other local inns that were once operated by Society Hill are both now managed by the Baltimore International Culinary College. Government House is owned by the city of Baltimore. The Society Hill Hotel-Hopkins is owned by Fenway Limited Partnership, an affiliate of Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse and has been renamed The Hopkins Inn.