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Inn Motion

Committee Forms to Reopen and Renew Baltimore's Shuttered Hostel

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/20/2002

By some lights, the local hospitality business is booming. Last spring, the towering 750-bed Marriott Waterfront Hotel debuted at Inner Harbor East, charging upward of $200 a night for some rooms. But if you are a traveler of limited means looking for a truly cheap bed, Baltimore has no place for you to lay your head.

But that might be changing. Last fall, a diverse group of travel-minded people, ranging from college-age to septuagenarian, banded together to help put Baltimore back in the budget-bed business. Calling themselves the Friends of the Baltimore Hostel Committee, they are exploring ways to rejuvenate the Baltimore International Hostel, the city's erstwhile cheap-sleep headquarters, which closed for renovations in February 1999 and has yet to reopen.

"Hostels provide an opportunity for young international travelers on tight budgets to stay in accommodations inexpensively--they were the way I initially learned about the world," says committee member Carol Bier, a freelance museum curator who began hostelling as a teenager in the '60s. "And Baltimore has so many hidden treasures of American history, it's an ideal location for a hostel."

The Baltimore Hostel--a member of Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels (HI-AYH), a nonprofit network of some 4,500 hostels around the world--opened in 1983 in an antebellum brownstone at 17 W. Mulberry St. For 16 years, it provided gender-segregated dorm-style accommodations and communal kitchen facilities for as little as $15 a night. Some 4,600 budget-minded travelers stayed there in 1998. Along with rows of metal-framed bunk beds, the downtown rowhouse sports Ionic columns, gilt-framed mirrors, and carved marble mantels. But over time, the vestiges of 19th-century opulence were overshadowed by 20th-century entropy: crumbling plaster, leaky ceilings, problematic plumbing. HI-AYH's Washington-based Potomac Area Council (PAC), which owns the facility, decided it was no longer fit to receive visitors and developed plans to give the 6,100-square-foot mansion a $750,000 renovation.

"It had been listed in [travel books] as only a temporary closing," says PAC board member John Russell, a 74-year-old retired school counselor and an avid hosteller. "We were really hoping to raise the money and reopen the hostel, but efforts never got underway."

With the eight-member PAC board busy managing the bustling, 270-bed Washington hostel--and undergoing steady member turnover in recent years--the Baltimore hostel became a back-burner issue. Russell, who rejoined the board in 2000 (he was also a member from 1980 to '85), was one of the first to take a hard look at the Baltimore situation. Though closed to hostellers, the building continues to house five apartments, which rent for around $350 a month each. But through a combination of poor management and the building's creaky infrastructure, even when fully rented the building was a financial drain. Last winter Russell personally donated $9,000 to upgrade the hostel's ancient, inefficient furnace. He also hired a professional management firm to oversee the rental operation.

"To prevent the board from wanting to sell the building, my first goal was to have the building break even," Russell says.

The PAC board, composed entirely of D.C.-area residents, determined that if the Baltimore project was to move forward it needed local involvement. Using HI-AYH membership lists, the board contacted more than 100 Baltimore-area hostellers last fall seeking help in saving the city's hostel. More than 15 volunteers came out for the fledgling committee's first meeting Nov. 29.

"The response has been terrific," says committee organizer and former PAC executive director Randy Mardres. "I am very impressed with the quality of people that have gotten involved--they're not just do-gooders, but action people."

On Feb. 9 and 16 the committee sponsored clean-up days at the hostel; about 40 people hauled out dozens of bags of trash and fallen plaster. The volunteers also began to assess what it would take to get the hostel open again in the short term--perhaps in time for the busy summer travel season.

"While we have to have a very practical plan to address the hostel's full renovation needs and the fund-raising they require, we are also exploring ways that we could begin to welcome international visitors again, if only on a temporary basis," Mardres says.

The hostel's ambitious renovation plans call for maintaining much of the building's rich architectural detailing while adding modern amenities such as air conditioning and an elevator to make it handicapped-accessible. The building's badly weathered brownstone facade would also be restored, an undertaking that would likely qualify for historic-preservation tax credits. The plans were created pro bono by the architectural firm Gant Hart Brunnett, which is quite familiar with the hostel--its offices are right next-door.

"I miss the animated street life the travelers provided when the hostel was open," says lead architect Kenneth Hart, who says he still sees the occasional backpacker knocking in vain on the hostel's locked front door. "I really believe in the project. It's good for the neighborhood."

Mardres says committee members are in the "very early exploratory phase" of determining what sort of fund-raising campaign might be launched. One place they can look for inspiration and ideas is Chicago, where two years ago HI-AYH opened a $15 million, 500-bed hostel in a 19th-century loft building. City and state funding was provided, but the hostel also created financial partnerships with a host of educational and cultural institutions.

"Baltimore deserves a good hostel," Mardres says. "If you're looking for the American experience, there's perhaps no place better than Baltimore."

The Friends of the Baltimore International Hostel holds its next meeting Feb. 21, 7 p.m., at the hostel building at 17 W. Mulberry St. For more information, call (301) 229-8893 or e-mail baltimorehostel@yahoo.com.

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