Baltimore never seems to run out of historic buildings worth restoring - including treasures obscured for so long that sometimes even their owners don't initially realize what they have.
The latest discovery is the former Chateau Hotel, a four-story building at the northwest corner of North Avenue and Charles Street. It was most popular in the flapper era, when entertainers performed on its rooftop garden. It was later converted to Goldbloom's clothing store, and its exterior was concealed by a stucco facade.
Now a Korean-American businessman named Clayton Kim is developing plans to remove the bland slipcover and reveal the historic hotel underneath - if the city doesn't condemn it first.
Kim said he wants to recycle the building for residential use, with commercial space at street level, as part of Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
"This is really a landmark for North Avenue," he says. "It's a historic property."
But Kim must first persuade city officials to support his restoration plan.
The building, at 2 to 4 W. North Ave., is one of 19 properties that the city has targeted for possible acquisition as part of an effort to rejuvenate the Station North arts district.
The Baltimore Development Corp. is seeking City Council authorization to acquire properties it considers dormant or underutilized and resell them to developers who would like to fix them up in keeping with the city's vision for the arts district. Other buildings on the condemnation list include the former Chesapeake Restaurant at 1701-09 N. Charles St. and the Parkway Theater at 5 W. North Ave.
Kim said he bought the Chateau Hotel property two years ago, before the city disclosed its revitalization plans for the area. Now 60 and employed by the federal government, he has a background in civil engineering and contracting and was looking for a project to work on in his retirement.
The building's exterior still looks largely the same as it did during its last years as Goldbloom's, a clothing store that closed more than a decade ago. Kim said it was only after he bought the building that he and his architect, Isao Oishi of Oishi Inc. in Baltimore, discovered its history as a hotel.
The Chateau was constructed shortly after World War I in and around a smaller hotel, the Northampton. Its builder was a group headed by Edouard Schmeler, a Frenchman who came to Baltimore as head waiter of the Emerson Hotel and later worked at the Hotel Belvedere.
Schmeler's group bought the Northampton for $50,000 and combined it with the adjacent property, Bunting's drug store, to create the Chateau.
The reconstruction cost more than $100,000 but was not a success initially. Schmeler moved to New York, where he resumed his career as a waiter. The hotel was acquired for $85,000 by Wilber F. Spice, a steamship operator and broker. One of its most popular features was a rooftop garden that doubled as a setting for live entertainment.
The hotel had its heyday in the 1920s, during the era of the Charleston. Rudy Vallee reportedly performed there. Goldbloom's modified the exterior during the 1970s. After Goldbloom's closed, the building housed a series of restaurants at street level, but its upper levels have been empty - rendered uninhabitable by the windowless wall covering.
Kim said he wants to open a restaurant at street level and approximately 30 apartments on the upper floors, where the hotel rooms were. He said one idea is to convert the building to assisted living for retired Korean-Americans, including a group that now lives in the city-operated high rise at 11 W. 20th St.
Kim said he is open to other suggestions for housing and would consider working with others, such as nonprofit groups, that could help him secure funding to carry out his plan.
He appeared before Baltimore's Planning Commission this summer to ask that the North Avenue building and another that he owns nearby be taken off the acquisition list because he is already proceeding with redevelopment plans.
Kim said a bank has agreed to lend him $50,000 to start restoring the exterior of the former hotel, and he is prepared to start work before the end of the year. His first action would be to skin the lower portions of the building to reveal the old hotel underneath. Then he would move ahead with restoration of the upper levels as additional funds become available.
Kim said he plans to open the restaurant in the next several months. But he is reluctant to begin the exterior facelift unless he receives assurance from city officials that they won't acquire his building after he's completed the restoration work.
He said he doesn't want to use the bank loan as long as the building is on the city's acquisition list, because he is afraid he won't get the money back if the city moves ahead with condemnation.
"If I invest the money, I would lose the money. That's what I'm afraid of."
The result is a classic Catch 22 situation: City officials won't take the building off the acquisition list unless they see signs of investment. The owner is afraid to invest until the building is taken off the acquisitions list.
Despite the obstacles, Kim said he is eager to proceed with his restoration and is optimistic that the project will be a success.
"I don't want to fight with the city. I want to work with the city," he said.
"If they would permit me, I could start within a month. If they give me some assurance, I'll start right away."
Kim said he would be willing to begin the exterior facelift, even if city officials won't take the building off the acquisition list, if they would just assure him that they'll drop their plans to acquire his building if he does what he says he'll do.
"If they said, 'Why don't you invest the money and we'll see if we like it or not' - even then I would start because I'm ready," he said.
"If I don't meet their requirements, they can come back and say, 'We're not satisfied,'" he added.
At the planning commission meeting, members voted to leave all 19 properties on the acquisitions list, which still must be approved by City Council. They did so after development agency president Jay Brodie explained that while the proposed legislation would give the city authorization to acquire the 19 properties, it doesn't obligate the city to buy any of them.
If the current owners can demonstrate that they are moving ahead with projects that are consistent with the city's plans for the arts district, Brodie explained, their buildings could be taken off the acquisition list.
One hopes that city officials can meet Clayton Kim halfway.
The fate of a long-hidden Baltimore hotel may be riding on it.
Eight cultural groups in Baltimore have received a total of nearly $400,000 from a heritage grants program administered by the Maryland Historical Trust.
The recipients are: The Jewish Museum of Maryland, which received $44,000 for the stabilization and rehabilitation of the exterior of the B'Nai Israel Synagogue near Jonestown, and a $22,340 museum enhancement grant; the Maryland Zoological Society, $50,000 to stabilize the exterior of the Maryland Building in Druid Hill Park, and the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, $50,000 for the interior and exterior repairs to the Merchant's House, 1732 Thames St. in Fells Point.
Also, Old Otterbein United Methodist Church Inc. received $30,000 for the exterior rehabilitation of Nelker Fellowship Hall; the Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria, in the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, $50,000 for structural repairs and repairs to its rose window of St. Katherine's, and the Star Spangled Banner Flag House Association, $50,000 for exterior rehabilitation of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House near Little Italy.
Also, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum and the Maryland Historical Society each received a $50,000 museum enhancement grant.