In Berlin, Md., Old Hotel Lives Anew

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Angela Reynolds might as well be showing off her own home as she leads a tour of the newly reopened Victorian-era Atlantic Hotel in the historic town of Berlin, Md. She fluffs already fluffed pillows, straightens barely crooked drapes and refolds not-quite-perfectly- folded towels.

Reynolds, who has been in charge of restoring three other historic hotels, knows that the devil is in the details but also that details make the inn. She points out cut-glass perfume bottles that fit just right on an antique washstand's marble shelves. She shows off newly purchased $1,500 iron beds made by the same company that first manufactured them in 1855. She fusses over a room that hasn't come together the way she'd like. She enters the inn's restaurant and recounts the heated discussions about paint colors. She proudly describes how guests all want to take photos of the room where Julia Roberts stood on the ledge in the film "Runaway Bride."

The 114-year-old hotel, smack in the middle of Berlin (pronounced BER-lin, by the way), has served as the town's hub since a group of local business owners got together to buy and renovate the then-crumbling building more than 20 years ago. Tourists on their way to Ocean City, less than 10 miles down the road, stop for a nice meal or a quiet overnight stay. And then they stroll the town's tree-lined streets, keeping myriad antiques stores, gift shops and art galleries in business.

"The hotel is the town's anchor," said Patricia Fischer, president of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and owner of Town Center Antiques. "If nothing else, people were drawn there, just to sit on the front-porch rocking chairs and watch the world go by."

That quiet harmony came to a sudden halt in January, when the hotel's operators suddenly closed the doors. And civic leaders worried about the impact that would have.

"Heritage tourism is a very important party of our economy," said Berlin Mayor Gee Williams.

Enter John Fager, the owner of Fager's Island, one of Ocean City's best-known restaurants, and two adjacent boutique hotels, the Edge and the Lighthouse Club.

Fager was well acquainted with Berlin and the hotel. He drives through the town and right past the property each day while taking his kids to school.

"When it closed suddenly, it laid everybody low," Fager said. "It was so depressing." So Fager called one of the owners, saying simply, "The hotel can't stay closed." Fast-forward a few weeks, and moving vans filled with the hotel's antiques (they had been hauled away by the previous operators) were being unloaded into Fager's newest venture.

"When we saw all the old stuff coming out of storage," Fischer said, "it was just like, 'Hallelujah, the hotel is back.' "

Fager took over on Feb. 17. By March 27, the Atlantic had reopened.

Reynolds, manager of Fager's hotel properties for nearly 20 years, said the quick turnaround was a challenge, even with Fager's Ocean City staff working long hours. But Berlin residents were waiting to pitch in. "When we opened our doors, just about everybody in the community walked in and said right off, 'We don't want to be paid. What can we do to help?' " Reynolds said.

The previous operators' contemporary imprints were erased. Hardwood floors stripped pale were redone in rich mahogany stain. Thick, antique-style curtains were added to the restaurant's bare windows. The restaurant was renamed the Drummer's Cafe, recalling the salesmen, called drummers, who stayed at the hotel when it first opened.

Framed photographs of long-gone Eastern Shore locals were put back on the walls. "Once in a while, a local person will come in and ask if they can have the photo because it's one of their ancestors," Reynolds said. Every piece of furniture was refinished. The ladies' lounge, where women once gathered while men went to the bar, was redone.

Reynolds scoured area antiques shops in search of just-right accent pieces, such as cut-glass water glasses for every room. But modern touches, including flat-screen TVs and 300-thread-count cotton linens, are part of the mix.

In the dining room, well-known local chef Leo D'Aleo, working with Fager and the chefs at Fager's Island, developed a new menu that draws on local ingredients, such as Smith Island crabmeat and vegetables from the farmers market down the block. An extensive wine-by-the-glass list was assembled. An antique piano that had previously graced the dining room's center was returned, and the hotel's former piano player, Earl Beardsley, was invited back for Monday nights.

Reynolds says renovations will continue. Landscaping is being added. A grassy area will soon be turned over to outdoor seating. The front porch, with its rocking chairs and dining tables covered in white, will be screened in.

Meanwhile, town leaders have embraced the changes.

"I truly believe that John Fager's commitment to this iconic property marks the beginning of Berlin's 21st-century renaissance," said Williams. "We want to honor our past, but not live in it. He understands that."

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