The Stafford: A grand old dame falls on hard times


News reports this week describing Baltimore's once elegant Stafford Hotel, now a low-income housing project, as a center of prostitution and drug dealing are a far cry from those that greeted the hotel's opening in 1894.

"This latest addition to Baltimore's hotels is a twelve-story brick and stone building, occupying a commanding position on Washington Place, near Madison Street," reported The Sun.

"The main entrance leads to a tiled hallway decorated in Romanesque designs. Soft mono-tints of the walls and ceilings are relieved with friezes and borders in conventional patterns flecked with gold," said the newspaper.

The dowager hotel, located in a setting reminiscent of New York's Gramercy Park, Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square or Boston's Louisburg Square, was designed by Charles E. Cassell for its owner, Dr. William A. Moale, scion of an old Baltimore family.

Illuminated by "incandescent lighting" and with telephones in each bedroom, the second floor contained a "ladies' parlor and drawing-room facing Washington Place, with a writing-room adjoining. A cafe will be on this floor for ladies traveling unattended and for permanent guests who do not care to go to the public dining rooms," said The Sun.

The first guests at the new hotel, whose manager was James P. O'Conor, father of future Maryland Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, were Edward Morrell, Edward Browning and John Grooner, visitors from Philadelphia.

It quickly earned and retained through the years its reputation as being a discreet address for society gatherings and the temporary home of visiting dignitaries, including notable musicians and theatrical figures.

From its vest-pocket, wood-paneled bar, patrons leisurely sipped Maryland rye whiskey, Old Fashioneds or martini cocktails, gazing at the mounted figure of Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard as the world strolled by on North Charles Street.

"The paneled bar of the Stafford was almost as exclusive as that of the Baltimore Club across the street. The report was widely circulated that not everybody could get a drink there. Before being so privileged, you had to pass muster before the discriminating bartender," wrote Francis F. Beirne in his book, "The Amiable Baltimoreans."

"The Stafford had quite a history," recalls legendary Baltimore hotel man Kemp C. Gatling, the hotel's manager at the time of its 1973 closing.

"A lot of the guests who were Europeans said it reminded them of London or Paris. It had a great tradition behind it and a very good reputation. Everyone remembered it being a sophisticated, high-class, sedate hotel, certainly in the same league as the Belvedere.

"Movie actors, musicians and opera stars all stayed there. One who liked it because it was quiet was Katharine Hepburn," said Gatling, a Rodgers Forge resident.

It was also a home to such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who stayed in Room 409 in 1936, and Joseph Hergesheimer, the now-forgotten American novelist and friend of H.L. Mencken, who lived there while writing "Swords and Roses."

"Fitzgerald drank a lot of gin while staying in the hotel and was such a pitiful sight," Gatling said, recalling stories told by a veteran bellboy who was there at the time.

English tailors visited the hotel once a year and took measurements for bespoke suits and other men's furnishings for their Baltimore clients, Gatling recalls.

"Carle Jackson, Mayor Howard Jackson's son, who was married to opera star Rosa Ponselle, would come there and get measured up. He also sent his laundry to London to be done," said Gatling, laughing.

One of the hotel's unsolved mysteries involved a guest named Elsie.

In 1931, when the hotel was updating its furnishings, a message was found scrawled on a drawer in a bureau bearing the date 1898.

Beneath the date was this note: "Dear Tom: Regardless of what happens, I will always love you. Elsie."

Who the mystery guest was or the meaning of the note remains just that, a mystery. For years, the board hung on the wall of the manager's office.

"The Stafford also earned a niche in history in 1911, when the American Psychoanalytic Association was founded at the hotel to advance the work of a pioneering Viennese by the name of Sigmund Freud," reported The Sun.

The hotel closed in January 1973. Its contents were sold and its few remaining guests departed. In 1975, the Stafford reopened as federally subsidized housing.

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