The Gov. Calvert Inn will open in a few days across the street from the State House, capping a remarkable 18-month transformation from a crumbling archeological dig site to a 55-room, red brick hotel.
Overseeing the restoration is Paul Pearson, a real estate developer most often seen these days racing around the city's historic district on foot, barking orders into a tiny tape recorder as he tries fitfully to shepherd five construction projects to completion at once, all the while thinking up new projects to tackle before the old ones are finished.
Pearson is a Harvard-educated, polo-playing, ex-Montgomery County farmer whose vision of Annapolis as a history class for visitors is changing the city. He has been a force in Annapolis for almost two decades, but lately a Pearson project seems to be popping up everywhere.
"I don't know what kind of dynasty he's building," said Nicholas Fotos, a downtown lawyer. "Most people would be satisfied with any one of the things he's doing."
Among projects occupying Pearson is the State House Inn, which is in as bad a state as the Calvert Inn was a year and a half ago, with restoration work just beginning. Then there's the Robert Johnson Inn, which after opening still does not have its computers concealed in antique cupboards, as Pearson believes they should be in an establishment that dubs itself colonial.
The Reynolds Tavern, another Pearson project, sits a block away on Church Circle. It is one of the oldest buildings in Annapolis and looks it, having sat vacant for years, but by next spring Pearson intends to have added it to his string of historic inns. Workmen are shoring up the foundation to keep it from caving in, and after that Pearson will worry about upgrading to satisfy building codes.
"How," Pearson asks, "do you get 18th century doors to measure up to 20th century safety standards?" It's particularly a problem when such doors were built for people almost a foot shorter than today's.
Pearson still has a few condominiums left to sell at Shearwater, the last of his three large waterfront project across Spa Creek in the Eastport section of the city. Then there are the jazz acts to book at his King of France Tavern, which is in the basement of the Maryland Inn, doyen of his hotel chain. The Maryland Inn also is undergoing extensive restoration.
And Pearson has to write the weekly radio ads for the jazz club, and then record them for broadcast on local stations.
"He has a beautiful voice," says Mayor Richard Hillman.
Pearson, 59, is the nephew of famed Washington newspaper columnist Drew Pearson and the son of Leon Pearson, former chief of NBC's Paris bureau. He has three daughters, two of whom help him with his various projects.
He is one of few developers enjoying the confidence of city officials, who are notorious for battling projects that change the downtown historic district. Officials say they believe Pearson's interest in restoring old buildings is based in part on a reverence for history and traditional architecture, and not just market surveys.
"There are many people who would love to do what Paul's doing," said developer Jerome Parks, a business rival, "but he's cut his niche and he's pulled them city officials into his web. He's done a unique job. Why should they deal with anyone else?"
"As a businessman, I respect him," added Parks, whose plan for a downtown Eastport hotel complex recently was rejected by the city. "I picture him as a guy with a grander ambition than just making money."
Pearson, says Mayor Hillman, is "a reasonable and logical person who doesn't try to rewrite the rules. If the code says you have to stand on your head, he has his engineers write the plans that way and it goes through the system faster."
"We find him very easy to work with," says St. Clair Wright, chairman of Historic Annapolis, a private advisory group that monitors the historic district. "When he wanted to put in a certain number of rooms at Reynolds Tavern, for example, we advised him that would destroy the interior integrity and he changed his plans. Then, when we discovered in the basement a very interesting archeological feature, he tossed out expensive mechanical drawings and put his heat plant somewhere else."
Pearson said revisions of that sort are what he enjoys about his job. "I look at an old building and I see a challenge," he said. "If I wanted to make money, I'd be out building Pizza Huts."
Pearson said he discovered Annapolis in 1965, on a friend's sailboat. The friend wanted to explore real-estate possibilities here, and Pearson was beginning to lose interest in his 1,800-acre farming operation.
He bought the Maryland Inn with a group of partners, and about 12 years and a fortune in restoration funds later, he said, it began showing a profit.
Using the skills he acquired rebuilding and marketing that 18th century landmark, Pearson began looking at other aged buildings. But the impetus to actually bid on them did not come until the mid-1970s, he said, when the federal investment tax credit program offered tax advantages that made restoration of historic buildings extremely attractive to investors.
The financing for the bulk of the five-hotel historic inns project came all at once two years ago, said Pearson, after he had been rejected by 28 different lending institutions.
Thus began his busiest time. Pearson, who has a cluttered, third-floor office above a vacant theater downtown and who lives in a two-bedroom condominium in Eastport, said he sometimes grows so weary he can barely stay awake to drive to his twice-weekly polo games and once-weekly polo practice in Potomac.
Once the historic inns are completed, he added, he could stand to take some time off.
But already he is eyeing the vacant State Circle moviehouse as a place to restore legitimate theater in Annapolis, and a Main Street parking lot as a place to build a replica of an 18th century building for offices. And he said his historic inns concept could be expanded to other cities, and connected by a computerized network to foster bookings.
"I'd like to think that a year from now I'd be sitting here with nothing to do," he said. "But that's not going to happen."