A Baltimore hotel fit for a duchess
By Andrea Sachs,
A biweekly staff review of East Coast and regional lodgings.
At the Hotel Brexton, the nonessential questions — Where do I park? When is breakfast served? What’s my room number? — could wait. So could sniffing the toiletries and checking the bed’s bounce. Before all else, I needed to know: Where, oh where did the Duchess of Windsor sleep?
Wallis Simpson, the American-born wife of Britain’s King Edward VIII, makes the best-of lists of swooning romances and royal scandals. While your guy showed his love by giving up beer for breakfast, her amour abdicated the English throne. Hard to top that sacrifice, eh? But keep in mind that Simpson, nee Bessie Wallis Warfield, hardly jumped straight to the chapter where the godmother shows up with a shiny dress and a Match.com prince. She suffered some rough patches first.
In 1905, the tweenage Wallis and her widowed mother moved into the Hotel Brexton, built in 1891 as a residential hotel in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Back then, the majestic building with two castle-like turrets — foreshadowing? — housed twice as many rooms as the current 29-room property. Residents also shared bathrooms (we modern-day guests get our own porcelain thrones), a hardship for those partial to long showers.
The duo lived at the Brexton for only a short spell, a blip of time in the Brexton’s own Cinderella story. As a tasteful acknowledgment to Wallis, the hotel named two sixth-floor suites, the swankiest and most expensive accommodations, after Him and Her. And in the cubby-size lobby, a Sotheby’s auction catalogue of her personal effects stands tall among the local papers and brochures for attractions. But that’s it. Oh, yes, and the vague answer to my concise question.
“We say she lived in the ‘upper floors,’ ” said the front desk employee.
If Wallis’s ghost were to return to haunt her previous residence, it would get lost. The hotel has received multiple nips and tucks over the years (1927, 1947, 1985), although the facade wears its original red-brick face. As in any tragi-romance, the Brexton suffered years of neglect and fell into ruin. Nature moved in, with trees sprouting indoors and animals running wild. Then, in 2010, the Brexton returned to the stage after a $4.5 million renovation, about $2.75 million less than the sale price of Wallis’s emerald-eyed Cartier panther bracelet.
My ground-level room overlooking the street (and my parked car; free limited spots available) had only a little toe in Brexton’s past: The tall-as-a-tree windows with ironwork and a circular contact-lens design were original. (The spiral staircase in the right turret is also from the first incarnation; photos of before and after the renovation hang on the top floors.)
The contemporary space was as bright as a spring day, and the soothing palette of gold, pale yellows and soft tans could calm a migraine. With a 15-foot ceiling and a mirrored armoire that created the illusion of space, itfelt as if I could fly a kite indoors — just watch the hatbox-shaped light fixture. The room, meanwhile, is the size of a pocket park, but it’s filled with a number of obstacles, including a couch, a coffee-making station and a mini-fridge, a chestnut dresser and a black-topped table with a grommeted chair. On second thought, it’s probably wiser to just settle in and watch some flat-screen TV.
On my Saturday evening stay, the hotel, which is surrounded by restaurants and clubs, was pin-drop quiet. On an ice run to the downstairs breakfast nook, I spotted only one other soul, my across-the-hallway neighbor, who scurried into her room, a bottle of red wine held close to her chest. The friendly front desk employee told me that a number of guests are residents at Maryland General. Aha, that explains the quiet: They’re either at the hospital or passed out from their long hours of doctoring.
More people showed up at the free breakfast the next morning, none in scrubs. A medical resident whom I’d met the evening before, when we were both scouring the neighborhood for dinner, had told me that his shift starts too early to make the 7 a.m. breakfast. Here’s what he was missing: cereal, yogurt, juice, fruit, bagels, oatmeal, pastries and the king (sorry, Edward) of coffee machines, the Latte Lounge. The Brexton also gets a heartfelt handshake for using real bowls and mugs, not disposable products. Styrofoam really interferes with the essence of Honey Bunches of Oats.
Even though the white ceramic dishware was from Ikea, not Wedgwood, I think Bessie Wallis Warfield would have approved.
868 Park Ave., Baltimore
Rooms from $99.