There are many things you expect from a trip to Baltimore. Crack dens. Gun-toting cops. Stringer Bell. What you might not expect and what watching The Wire certainly didn’t reveal is the city’s impressive collection of art deco towers; all corniced windows and decorative architraves. Yet another thing an evening spent with Idris Elba won’t tell you is that one has been done up, restored to its prohibition era glory and turned into one of the most decadent hotels on the Eastern Seaboard. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Lord Baltimore.
Built in 1928 by architect William Stoddard, the hotel towers 23 storeys above the rain-splashed streets below and boasts a high-ceilinged atrium of the sort that probably wouldn’t look out of place at Buckingham Palace. Vast Baccarat crystal chandeliers twinkle in the centre, while towards the rear a dark little bar furnished with red velvet armchairs has more than a whiff of Al Capone about it. And it’s not alone. From the rickety lifts with their brass doors to the trilby-hatted bell boys, the decadence of the 1930s never really seem that far away.
But if the lifts and lower floors scream art deco, the recently renovated rooms tell a different story. Mine was decked out in modish dark grey, cream and white and boasted a vast bed complete with super-sized white pillows and a natty tweed throw. The bathroom – a slightly more Spartan affair – featured industrial chic white ceramic tiles and came with all the essentials, including a hairdryer, while the nightstand was home to a coffee maker that managed to produce a brew stronger (and thus better) than the usual American hotel fare.
Back down in the bar, I got chatting over a cherry-infused Manhattan to doorman Amos; a Kenyan émigré with ghost story to tell. According to local legend, the 19th floor of the Lord Baltimore is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who, as the tale has it, haunts the floor after jumping from a window to her death shortly after the hotel opened. Another quirk, he revealed, comes in the shape of one of the lifts which mysteriously refuses to stop on the 18th floor. Gulping nervously, I retired to my 17th floor room for a night (thankfully) uninterrupted by noise – traffic, spectral or any other kind.
The next morning, I decided to sneak up to the 19th floor before breakfast to have a look around. Smaller than the others, it’s home to the presidential suite and is also where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed while touring the country in the 1960s. With tingles tracking up and down my spine, I paced through the corridors on the lookout for ghosts, female or otherwise, but apart from one laundry cart, discovered precisely nothing. But a breakfast in the hotel’s spectacular French Kitchen restaurant – a fabulous art deco treasure decorated in turquoise and gilt and festooned with epically large chandeliers – did yield an unusual discovery.
Behind the gold and blue, a prohibition- era speakeasy lurked hidden. Tucked away behind a moveable wall, it was a barren little place, empty of everything but bits of junk left over from refurbishment. Not for much longer though: the hotel plans to renovate and reopen the joint. Completing the transformation that has seen the building go from peeling wreck to art deco treasure. Back in the breakfast room, as I tucked into cornbeef hash – done the proper way without a can of anything funny looking in sight – I thought of how remarkable the Lord Baltimore’s new lease of life really was. A stunning period building that could have gone the way of The Wire has had its prohibition-era glory restored in spectacular style. Ghosts notwithstanding, it was a little dose of gangster chic that anyone would enjoy.
IN THE AREA…
Despite its gritty reputation, there’s more to Baltimore than crack dealers and gangsters – neither of which you’re likely to find during a trip to the city. Blessed with a vast harbour that juts out into the even vaster Chesapeake Bay, the city is dotted with art deco skyscrapers and imposing neo-Palladian civic buildings. Lovely though they are, most of Baltimore’s hidden gems are to be found indoors; among them the B&O American Brasserie – home to the best cocktails in the city.
Here, under the watchful eye of mixologist Brendan Dorr, you can sip your way through most of the menu, including the gorgeous pepper and gin Copper Top. It might not sound particularly tasty, but believe me, it really is divine. Elsewhere, Ten Ten, a chic eaterie tucked away down a narrow alley, is the place to go for salty-smooth Chesapeake Bay oysters and cold cuts made from pork, beef and chicken raised on the restaurant’s own organic farm. Also well worth a visit is the Waterfront Kitchen, a stunning supper spot with views over the harbour and the best meatloaf in the world.
When you’re not eating, take a tour of America’s past and head to Fort McHenry, birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, and the Baltimore Maritime Museum, where you can take a tour of the USS Constellation, one of the last sail-powered warships built by the US Navy. If the urban streets become a little too much, head out into the surrounding countryside towards the historic town of Frederick, where you’ll be rewarded with a pretty shopping street and rolling fields dotted with large red barns that could have come direct from the set of Superman.
NEED TO KNOW…
A night at the Lord Baltimore starts at $149 (approx. £90) per night. See lordbaltimorehotel.com for more information and to book. Flights to Washington D.C, a 30-minute journey by car from Baltimore, start at £520 return with Virgin Atlantic. For more information and to book, see virgin-atlantic.com. For more on Baltimore and Capital Region USA, see Baltimore.org and capitalregionusa.co.uk