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Charmed Life

Groaning Boards

Photo courtesy of Maryland Department, Enoch Pratt Free Library

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/5/2001

The southeast corner of Liberty and Saratoga streets serves cars today. About 70 or so can squeeze onto the wedge-shaped parking lot tucked in the shadow of the Charles Towers high rises. It costs $2.50 an hour to stash a vehicle here.

Oh, but back in the day--round about the turn of the 20th century, to be more precise--folks came to this spot for a far different kind of service. Presidents came here. Celebrities came here. H.L. Mencken came here nearly every day. People the world over knew of this corner and were drawn to it, and not for a slab of asphalt. From 1885 to 1941, this crossroads was dominated by the "Palace of the South"--the Hotel Rennert, a red-brick pile of high-Victorian exuberance topped with a pair of gilt-roofed cupolas (from which anxious hotel employees watched the Great Fire of 1904 roar to within a block of the place).

For all its ornate trappings, the Rennert was known less for its beds than for its board of fare--which, old clippings invariably point out, was prepared by an all-black staff of cooks who were masters at turning Maryland's bounty of fish and fowl into waistcoat-bursting Falstaffian feasts. For far less than $2.50 one could wallow in gastronomic decadence: a tureen of butter-rich diamondback terrapin, a plump canvasback duck, endless rounds of bulbous, briny oysters. When the old hotel fell to demolition squads, you could say that old-school Maryland cuisine began its own melancholy decent into gauzy, gastronomic memory.

The hostelry's namesake founder, Robert Rennert, cut his culinary chops at a smaller inn on Fayette Street. He moved to Liberty and Saratoga after the federal government condemned the Fayette property to make way for a post office. When Rennert cut the ribbon on his new hotel in 1885, it was billed as the second-costliest edifice in the city.

The lodestar of local cuisine in those days was terrapin, and Rennert kept hundreds of these reptiles penned in the hotel's basement. (Only Chesapeake terrapin would do; the persnickety Rennert shunned turtles from Carolina waters.) Pheasant, grouse, and reed birds were also on the menu, alongside hominy croquets and Maryland beaten biscuits. While diners filled their innards in the various dining rooms, politicos filled their ears in the lobby. Here the city's Democratic bosses held court, ensconced in overstuffed leather chairs. And when the 1912 Democratic Convention was nominating Woodrow Wilson for president over at the Fifth Regiment Armory, the Rennart's public rooms overflowed with boozing and backslapping (and probably some backstabbing).

As the 1920s neared, however, the Rennert started down the slippery slope toward decline. A host of newer hotels were being added to the city's skyline. But the real damage was done by the 1919 Volstead Act--aka Prohibition. You couldn't prepare Terrapin à la Maryland without liberal amounts of sherry, nor properly wash down the rest of the Free State's formidable fare without ready vessels of beer and wine. The Rennert limped through the "noble experiment," but bills began to go unpaid. It fell into receivership in 1932.

Some gaiety returned once the taps reopened in 1933. There's a famous picture of Mencken at the Rennert's mahogany bar, tipping back his first public glass of post-Prohibition beer. (Of course, H.L. had been home-brewing on Hollins Street all along.) But the return of spirits wasn't enough to revive the brick-and-stained-glass grand dame, whose 19th-century décor was now dowdy and dated. The place was mired in financial and physical problems. (A rowdy fraternity dance in 1934 brought down the dining-room ceiling). In 1935, the noble pile was leased to a national hotel chain. When it pulled out four years later, the hotel owed more than $150,000 in back taxes. It was sold to a Washington, D.C., company bent on turning it into a car park.

The Rennert closed in December of 1939, but not before it witnessed one last freewheeling fete. Old-timers--Mencken among them--gathered for a final sup, and the musty temple's halls echoed with choruses of "Auld Lang Syne." The vacant edifice was pulled down in 1941.

The legacy of its victuals lives on only in praising prose, such as that of poet and anthologist Louis Untermeyer, who declared the Rennert home to "the best restaurant America" in his 1939 autobiography From Another World. If he had the luxury of choosing the site of his own death, Untermeyer wrote, he would elect to join the angels "in the basement lunch-counter of the old Hotel Rennert . . . eating shad-roe and listening to Mencken with one ear and [the opera] Die Meistersinger with the other."

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