Everyone came to the Rennert Institution: The hotel built by Robert Rennert in 1885 was the place to be for many years. Politicos wheeled and dealed, and Mencken celebrated Prohibition's repeal there.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

3/8 TC When the Rennert Hotel opened its doors at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty streets in 1885, it was described in newspaper accounts as being "the highest type of American hostelry."

It was the creation of Robert Rennert, the son of German immigrant parents, who started in the hotel business as a young man working at the famed Guy's Monument House in Monument Square.

He opened his own restaurant on Water Street in the 1850s, and added Rennert's Downtown Restaurant on Fayette Street near Calvert in 1870. But it was his dream of building and owning a first-class hotel that led to the building of the Rennert.

"He steered clear of the vanity of vaunting himself on specialties, but he made a specialty of everything in his line," said "Baltimore, Its History and People," which was published in 1912.

"He studied the art of serving his guests with everything they wanted in the best possible style. He was an ideal host and was honored and respected by all who found shelter and refreshment under his hospitable roof. He was a man of the most amiable and loveable qualities, exceedingly sympathetic, generous and charitable, and his tastes were both cultivated and refined."

In constructing the Renaissance-style fireproof hotel, which was seven stories high and designed by architect E. Francis Baldwin, Rennert personally directed the work over a period of 2 1/2 years. He even paid the workman each Saturday afternoon.

The hotel contained 128 "chambers," all of which had fireplaces and 40 of which had private baths. The building was illuminated by both gas and electricity. Hydraulic elevators whisked guests and staff between floors and to the roof, which contained a garden and offered splendid views of the city, especially at night.

"The first-floor is taken up with offices, lobby, main-dining room, smoking-room, reading-room, ladies reception room and five private dining rooms," said The Sun, which described the hotel as being "richly decorated and elegantly furnished."

At its opening in October 1885, Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe saluted Rennert on the completion of his luxurious and plush masterpiece.

The Sun reported that Latrobe "congratulated himself that his wife had not gone over the establishment as he had, otherwise she might be tempted to break housekeeping and go there to live."

The hotel's dining room quickly developed a reputation as being the center of Maryland gastronomy.

"The Rennert was famous throughout the civilized world for the excellence of both its oysters and its traditional Maryland dishes," said Paul S. Lake, former manager of the hotel, in The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1965.

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Flo Ziegfeld and ex-President William Howard Taft were some of the loyal guests who came to Baltimore to sample the hotel's notable cuisine.

It was customary for guests ordering a dozen oysters to be given 13. Oysters could be had in a stew or in a pie. They were served fried or in an oyster sauce poured over turkey. Before World War I, wild duck was featured on the menu. The hotel each spring bought some 5,000 to 7,000 terrapin, which were kept in a basement pen before being reduced to terrapin a la Maryland.

The hotel also became a popular gathering spot for journalists and Democratic party bosses such as John S. Frank Kelly, Sonny Mahon and Danny Loden, who used the hotel's public and private rooms as a political clearinghouse, while filling the air with the rich blue smoke of seasoned Havanas and dispensing favors to those in need.

"For nearly 50 years the old hostelry at the top of Liberty Street hill, so hideous outwardly and so charming within, has been a great deal more than a mere hotel; it has been one of the salient institutions of Baltimore -- as much so, almost, as the Lexington Market," wrote H. L. Mencken in The Evening Sun in 1932.

Mencken, who first visited the hotel as a young reporter, became accustomed to its food and beverages, as well as its eclectic inhabitants.

"The assembled master-minds always got pretty tight, and so did their guests, who were often distinguished. I have seen a United States Senator carried out in his chair, and a Governor of a nearby State choked by hiccups. On one memorable occasion a Mayor of Baltimore acquired such a jag that he went home, fell down a stairway and broke a leg," wrote Mencken, who estimated that he had eaten 3,000 meals in its dining room.

It was at the hotel's semicircular bar at 11: 25 p.m. on April 6, 1933, that Mencken was given the first legal glass of beer to come over the bar after Prohibition ended.

Mencken loudly proclaimed to the assembled spectators, "Here it goes," and after consuming the beer in one long gulp slapped the stein on the bar and uttered his critique of the beverage:

"Pretty good. Not bad at all."

However, times were changing, and with the opening of the Belvedere Hotel in 1903, the fashionable crowds deserted the Rennert, and by the late 1930s the hotel was in trouble. It closed in 1939 and was torn down in 1941.

In 1951, a five-story parking garage was built on the site and aptly named the Rennert Garage. It was torn down this year by Mullan Enterprises and replaced by a parking lot. A fence of steel and brick that follows the outline of the long-gone hotel is the only reminder of its existence on the site.

At Rennert's death in 1898, The Sun in an editorial said, "But there are some men who are missed; it may not be for years and it may not be forever, but they are missed. Among men of this sort is the man who knows how to keep a hotel. Such a man was Robert Rennert. His life was devoted to that particular avocation. He was one of the rare men in the world who knew how to keep a hotel. Peace to his ashes."

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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