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Mobtown Beat

Up in the Old Hotel

The Congress Is Readied for Residents Amid a Bid to Bring Music Back to Its Famed Basement Bar

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 10/24/2001

Michael Seipp keeps a white hard hat in the back seat of his Chevrolet. But when the senior development director for Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse pulls into the parking lot of the Congress Hotel these days, his head protection stays in the car. After more than a year of work, his company's renovation of the 98-year-old hotel into 36 apartments is nearly complete.

"It's no longer a hard-hat zone," Seipp says. "We've already got six tenants living in the building and another three signed up."

Four of the building's six residential floors are ready for occupancy, with rents for the one- and two-bedroom units ranging from $750 to $1,200 a month. (The remaining floors should be ready for residents by month's end.) Conditions in the hotel-cum-apartment house lobby clearly indicate that some renovation efforts are ongoing. Though the marble floor has been spruced up, the walls need painting. A pair of floor-to-ceiling glass partitions--which will allow the grandeur of the lobby to be seen from areas sectioned off as leaseable space--are not yet in place. About a third of the adjacent ballroom's ornate plasterwork is glowingly white. (It's brand new--created from molds of existing plasterwork.) The rest of the room's rococo detailing awaits cleaning and restoration, which Seipp says should be finished by the end of November.

Despite the less-than-pristine conditions, Seipp says Struever Bros. has nearly closed negotiations with a pair of organizations ready to lease the bulk of the Congress' 4,200 square feet of ground-floor commercial space. Most of it will be used for offices; a small deli may occupy a corner where the hotel once had a coffee shop. Seipp rues the plebian use of the grand, high-ceilinged ballroom, "but nobody bit" when Struever Bros. approached caterers about taking on the space to host social functions, he says.

But the firm has gotten a major bite on another one of its Congress Hotel lines: the Marble Bar in the basement. A fabled nightspot since the hotel's early-20th-century inception, the Marble spent the 1970s and '80s as perhaps Baltimore's most storied rock club, a local punk Mecca where acts ranging from R.E.M. to Iggy Pop to, ah, Huey Lewis and the News appeared ("Glory Hole," CP, Dec. 6, 2000, www.citypaper.com/2000-12-06/feature.html). Seipp says Struever Bros. is "50 percent along the way" to completing a leasing agreement with a group that wants to open the Marble as an upscale live-music venue.

"We would love to make an announcement by Thanksgiving that we've landed a club for the basement," he says. "It could be open for business 90 days after that."

At present, it's still very rough and disheveled in the cavernous cellar, which has a capacity of 700. The room's signature feature--a 72-foot-long Italian marble bar--sits in boxes on the floor, having recently returned from trip to a stone refinisher. Since a deal for the bar is still in development, Seipp isn't authorized to identify the individuals interested in remaking the Marble. (He does say they include the manager of an existing music club and a regional concert promoter.) The would-be new proprietors are still arranging financing for the estimated $800,000 it would take to outfit the room with furnishings, sound equipment, and other club necessities.

Preliminary blueprints place the stage along the room's east wall and the famed bar at its original position on the north end. A separate billiards room would be created, and a green room established in a sub-basement. While the room's historic detailing will be restored and maintained, the echoey underground acoustics would be attacked with a variety of floor, wall, and ceiling sound-baffling treatments. The idea is to target a well-heeled 25-to-45 market with a mix of jazz, Latin, and blues music, including national touring acts.

While the Congress' basement bar is perhaps halfway to revival, far less certain is the fate of the empty, city-owned buildings surrounding the former hotel. These include the nearly 100-year-old Mayfair Theater at 508 N. Howard St. (which physically connects to the Congress at the rear) and a pair of 19th-century buildings at the corner of Franklin and Howard streets.

More than two years ago, City College Associates (CCA), a development group that converted the former City College building nearby into apartments, proposed a $20 million residential/parking project for these properties. (The plan included rehabbing the corner buildings but saving only the ornate facade of the decayed Mayfair, which must be preserved under an agreement between the city, which owns the building, and the Maryland Historic Trust.) A lack of financing stalled the CCA initiative, and in June Struever Bros. submitted its own proposal for the properties that calls for carving 48 rental units out of the structures at Howard and Franklin and building five floors of apartments inside a gutted Mayfair.

The Struever project, priced at about $9 million, hinges on the firm's ability to secure federal and state historic-preservation tax credits. The $7.2 million Congress rehab received $2.5 million in such credits, which Seipp says were "critical" to the project's success.

At issue in the tax-break bid is whether the dramatic reconfiguration of the Mayfair--plans call for demolishing the interior and punching windows through the side walls--would qualify for preservation credits under the guidelines maintained by the National Park Service, which would have to OK Struever Bros.' request. Under the guidelines, a rehab "must not damage, destroy, or cover materials . . . that help define the building's historic character."

"Some preservationists feel that if you can't save a building as it was originally built, you shouldn't qualify for tax credits," Seipp says. He maintains that, thanks to a partial roof collapse three years ago, the Mayfair, which closed in 1986, "doesn't have an interior anymore. There's nothing to save." Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, agrees, saying his group would not oppose such a conversion "because most of the interior is gone."

Any resolution is still at least several weeks away. Struever Bros. can't take its proposal to the Park Service until it gains control of the building, something that won't happen before mid-December. The Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), the city's quasipublic development arm, recently issued a request for proposals for the site, giving other developers two months to pitch alternative plans. "We always saw this block as a development opportunity," BDC chief operating officer Sharon Grinnell says. The unsolicited Struever proposal, she says, sparked BDC to think "the time may be right" to move on the area.

Grinnell blames the sad condition of the Mayfair on the bout of severe winter weather that caused the aged roof to fall in. "The cost to repair, replace, or reconstruct the roof was astronomical at a time when there was no end user for the theater in sight," she says.

"In order to save the Mayfair building you have to allow it to be reconstructed to some degree," says Seipp, who has toured the now largely roofless grande dame. "We can make it work structurally. Now we just have to wait and see if we can make it work financially."

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