Couple look to the past for historic inn's future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The ghostly pale of white paint primer covers most of the walls and woodwork of the 18th-century Reynolds Tavern. And the antique furniture is hidden under the shroud of painters' protective sheets.

But the historic structure on Church Circle in Annapolis, which has languished in deathly stillness for four years after the last two businesses there failed, could be full of life again if its owners can alleviate neighborhood concerns about plans to open a tavern and tearoom there.

Over its more than 250 years, the building has had all kinds of uses: hat shop, tavern, dry goods store, boarding house, home and public library. Now new owners Jill and Andrew Petit want to again return it to what it was in George Washington's day.

As the Petits walked through the large four-story building, which commands one of the most prominent spots in the state capital, they described a plan of grand proportions: a pub, tearoom, three hotel suites, banquet rooms and a large expanse of outdoor dining.

"We said this has to be turned into an inn again," said Andrew Petit, whose request will be discussed tonight at a meeting of the city's Board of Appeals.

But first the couple will have to overcome opposition from some downtown residents concerned that the tavern will generate too much noise, and that patrons will snatch up on-street parking. They say the project pits economic viability against their quality of life.

"Everyone is glad to see them renovating, but it's the fact that they are asking for too much, and it is not fair to the residents," said Alderman Louise Hammond. "Good economic development would not have a negative effect on the residents."

It is a classic Annapolis battle, reminiscent of many that have been fought here over the traffic, parking and noise concerns of downtown residents. Many oppose any restaurant expansions in the area. This time, though, the squabble involves the fate of a landmark that has spent much of the recent past closed to the public.

"The best way to preserve a building is to have people in it and using it," said Thomas W. Cuddy, curator of archaeology for the Historic Annapolis Foundation, which holds a preservation easement on the building. "It is of historical significance -- people need access to it."

Built in the Georgian style about 1747 by hatmaker William Reynolds, the 8,500-square-foot building across from St. Anne's church initially housed his store and featured a tavern called The Beaver and Lac'd Hat. Later, it was used as a home for Farmers Bank's cashiers, survived an attempt by Standard Oil to buy and raze it for a gas station, and became a public library. In 1974, the library donated the building to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A decade later, developer Paul Pearson of the Historic Inns of Annapolis leased the building and spent more than $1.6 million renovating it for use as a restaurant. Pearson had done the same thing with other Annapolis landmarks such as the Maryland Inn and the Governor Calvert House. But the plan ran over budget, and Pearson lost Reynolds Tavern when he filed for bankruptcy not long after it opened. Sandy and Ramsay Stallman leased the building in 1994 and opened a tavern there, but it closed four years later.

The building has sat vacant since then. The National Trust and Farmers Bank, which regained ownership when Pearson filed for bankruptcy, put the building on the market two years ago in hopes of finding a buyer with a sound business plan so that it could be preserved and remain open.

Still, early offers on the 255-year-old building proposed turning it into offices. Then Petit and his wife, who moved to Arnold from England in 1995, offered $825,000 for the building, less than the original asking price of more than $1 million. In England, she had run a restaurant in a 16th-century building for four years and he had helped run his parents' pub.

"A lot [of people] got scared off by the historic nature of the building, but we have always lived in older houses," Andrew Petit, 52, said.

The Petits are spending $300,000 to renovate the building, while keeping its history on display.

"I think one of the things we can do is let people see how the building has evolved," Andrew Petit said.

On the basement level, brothers Andrew and Chris Fox plan to run the Sly Fox Pub.

White barn-boards were ripped off one of the walls to expose centuries-old brick and the original foundation. Old fireplaces will be used or converted into things such as coat and wine racks. The walls will be decorated with historic photographs of the building and the city. And a rare 18th-century brick Rumford Boiler, used to keep foods warm, will be on display under glass.

"As far as evidence of older times, it is one of the rarities," William Sherman, director of conservation for the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said of the Rumford Boiler.

The first floor would feature Annapolis' first tearoom, where the Petits say they would serve more than 20 varieties of tea along with cakes, sandwiches, soups and other light fare. Full afternoon tea would be available.

"Tea is unbelievably fascinating as a subject," Jill Petit said, noting that afternoon tea dates to the early 19th century and is the legacy of Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford.

The second floor would feature two hotel suites and one single-occupancy room that would rent for $190 to $300 a night and be decorated with antiques that Jill Petit is having shipped from England to outfit the building. On the third floor, where Revolutionary War-era graffiti art around a mantel is displayed under glass, a large "assembly room" with antique Irish wake tables would be leased for meetings.

But it is the plan for the large courtyard and terrace that has some downtown residents in a tizzy. The Petits are seeking permission for 120 outdoor seats -- more than double the number the previous owners had -- which would make Reynolds among the largest restaurants in the city.

"It is the courtyard that makes it work," Andrew Petit said.

Alderman Hammond, whose ward includes downtown, has joined a handful of other residents in protesting the plan. She said the increase in seating "is far too much to expect the neighborhood to absorb." The building has no private parking, though the couple will be able to use about a dozen spaces at a nearby lot at night.

But Jacquelyn M. Rouse, a senior city planner, said: "It is more important to have a project that is economically viable than one that is doomed to fail."

The Petits, whose plan was approved by the city Planning Commission last month, note that the tavern is farther from residents than most downtown restaurants. It is insulated by the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court building across Franklin Street and a block of commercial properties in all directions.

The Board of Appeals will have the final say on whether to approve the request for a special exception needed for new restaurants in that area.

If the board does not find in the Petits' favor, though, the couple -- well through the planned renovations -- said they will have to rethink their plans for the building, which they own and could convert for less-public uses.

They are trying to win over residents by inviting them to open houses and passing out pamphlets explaining their plan. "It's OK," said Jill Petit. "We are going to take very good care of the building and provide a good service."

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