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Congress Hotel to be reborn as 36 apartments; Development: A 96-year-old hotel at 306 W. Franklin St. is expected to undergo construction in June


BALTIMORE'S historic Congress Hotel would be reborn as a 36-unit apartment residence called The Kernan, under the latest plan to bring housing to the west side of downtown Baltimore.

Owner J. Thomas Dowling recently joined forces with a co-developer, Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, and they are working to begin construction on the $5 million project by June.

Plans call for the building's upper six floors to be converted to market-rate apartments and for the lower levels, including the hotel ballroom, mezzanine and Marble Bar, to be leased to commercial or office tenants.

Dowling, as head of Kernan Restoration Limited Partnership, has been working since 1992 to transform the 96-year-old hotel at 306 W. Franklin St.

Constructed by theater entrepreneur James Kernan, the building was known as Kernan's Hotel from 1903 to 1932, when it was acquired by an insurance firm and renamed the Congress Hotel.

Dowling said he is optimistic that the project will move ahead this year as part of the city's $350 million campaign to rejuvenate the west side of downtown Baltimore.

"Doing the Congress has been a dream of mine for many, many years, and now maybe it will finally come true," he said. "I think that with the city's newfound interest on the west side, [it] will be a showpiece for the area and a catalyst for additional development. All of the studies show there is a pent-up demand for housing" on the west side.

Ted Rouse, a partner of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, said he is especially encouraged by other development near the Congress, such as the Gallery Towers apartments at 111 E. Centre St. and the conversion to office space of the former Hochschild Kohn warehouse at Park Avenue and Centre Street.

Rouse said he expects the apartments to attract young urban professionals and others who want to live within walking distance of downtown Baltimore and cultural institutions such as the Peabody Institute.

"We think the neighborhood is improving and there's a renaissance of interest in downtown housing," Rouse said. "This is such a beautiful, historic building. There's a growing recognition that the Charles Street corridor can expand" and "the 500 and 600 blocks of Howard St. can be an anchor for activity."

Martinez & Johnson of Washington is the architect. Plans call for the exterior to be restored and for the upper levels to contain 30 two-bedroom apartments and six one-bedroom apartments. Monthly rents would range from about $550 to $850. The lower levels would be modified to suit individual tenants as they emerge.

The developers are seeking financing from a variety of sources, including the Downtown Housing Council, Community Development Financing Corp., and the sale of tax credits for historic preservation.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the project has a good chance of receiving funding from the Downtown Housing Council, formed to help owners convert older buildings downtown to contemporary apartments. He said the developers at one point considered seeking funding to build low-income apartments but he encouraged them not to go that route. "We didn't want income restrictions," he said. "We want to get some people in the city with wallets."

Designed by John D. Allen Co. of Philadelphia in a "modified Second Empire Style," the hotel was built as part of a "triple-million-dollar enterprise" that included the Auditorium and Maryland theaters, to which it was connected underground. The Maryland was demolished in the 1950s, but the Auditorium, since renamed the Mayfair, stands and is owned by the city.

Among the performers who appeared at the Auditorium or the Maryland were Helen Hayes, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers. Henry Fonda and margaret Sullavan were married in the hotel's ballroom. Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers reportedly stayed in hotel guest rooms upstairs.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation this month approved a request to designate the hotel a city landmark to make the building eligible for tax credits for historic preservation.

Dowling said he hopes to convey the building's rich history when marketing it.

"When you say that Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married there, and that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced on the Marble Bar, most people aren't aware of that," he said. "It's our intention to play off this."

Architect James Polshek to lecture at art museum

New York architect James Polshek will discuss his work in a lecture sponsored by the American Institute of Architects at 6 p.m. April 7 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tickets cost $12 ($8 for seniors and students with identification).

Pub Date: 3/25/99

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