I thought this was going to be a jaunty travel story about Hotel Revival in Baltimore. When I visited the city two weeks ago, President Donald Trump hadn’t yet begun his all-but-baseless tirades against Baltimore, a city he described as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and a “very dangerous and filthy place.” So said the man whose own buildings are infamous for code violations and whose son in law, Jared Kushner, owns thousands of properties in and around Baltimore, many of which are hotbeds of rodent and insect infestation.
That kibosh moment made me wish I could deflect all the verbal bullets the president fired at Baltimore with a piece highlighting the city’s rich history and lively enclaves and attractions. I have come to love the place. Last fall, an invitation to cover John Waters’ Indecent Exposure career retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art had landed me two nights at Hotel Revival, just after its May 2018 opening. A year later, I returned to Baltimore, and again stayed at the Hotel Revival, a boutique hotel that gives boutique hotels a good name.
“Boutique” used to imply a groovy intimate independent hotel. As people checked into the mauve-and-mint-green-on-beige rooms and reward programs that larger hotel chains offered, others sought exquisite romance in luxurious cocoons staffed by people who know how to make a person feel loved. The staid oldies co-opted the term to attract travelers looking for the upscale sweet spot in a renovated building. As with everything cool, the indies get taken over by the majors and the whole boutique genre gets diluted to not much more than a cliched marketing term or just a sad euphemism for cramped.
So it’s refreshing to walk into the Hotel Revival, located in Baltimore’s cultural Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood, because it’s comfortable and quirky enough to make staying in for a night of cocktails and karaoke in one of the three private rooms at B Side lounge or going out a genuine decision. Hotel Revival is cool in a place where cool has always been a little underground, and it works that angle with immense success.
The hotel also does what it can, in ways big and small, to tie the hotel into its environment, to give you a vivid sense of where you are. The walls of the hotel’s interior staircase, for example, are papered with photography remix artist Cassandra C. Jones’ “True Stories,” a Baltimore-specific installation that covers the space around the stairs connecting the first and second floors. Her images were inspired by folk art symbols in the graphic squares and primary colors of Baltimore Album Quilts, which are traditionally “designed and constructed based on the lives of women,” according to the artist.
The rooms have similar elements while each maintains the quaintness of a jewel box. Floral wallpaper accents, traditional architectural woodwork, modern lighting, and stylish craftsman, transitional, and mid century furniture—all unify the accommodations. Accessories like comic books and pop twists on traditional botanical prints and portraiture are the sauce. It works.
Revival does fine by most of the basics as well. When choosing the amenities that should be included in a hotel room, I’ll take a large room over bathrobes any day, and here I got my wish. (Yes, size is an amenity when it comes to “boutique” rooms.) The room is big enough to practice a yoga flow, even with an indulgent, cozy king-size bed, desk + hutch, and an armchair next to the windows that don’t open to deter smoking and suicide. The ceilings are high, and a bronze light fixture spiders out in all directions. There’s a shower built for two but no bathtub. (Tubs are in select rooms, though.) The Jonathan Adler face and body products are drying, and the conditioner is but a little splooge of thin film. Pack something else. I do like a coffee maker, which is an accoutrement too often forgotten by swankier hotels these days and missing here too. There is a refrigerator in the sideboard under the television but no properly stocked minibar. It’s BYO, kids. The price point fluctuates between $100 and $200—affordability with schmancy linens and great food in a vibrant location.
Baltimore is always doing its own thing. The Hampden neighborhood is lined with vintage stores. The Sagamore Distillery offers mixology lessons and tours. John Waters’ "Kiddie Flamingos" is in the permanent collection at Baltimore Museum of Art. A ghost tour in Fells Point is good family fun, and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum is there for baseball fans (and for baseball played by living human beings, there’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards). The Peabody Ballroom Experience brings members of the LGBTQ community to the runway in fanciful costume for a night of voguing and fashion at the Peabody Library, and that’s shaping up to be an annual event. The Canton waterfront will be aglow at the 1,000 Lantern Lights Festival happening this month. In the city where, as Trump tweeted, "no human being would want to live," everyone belongs. Everyone fits.
When the slumlords Trump were called out for their abuse of low-income Americans living in their housing projects in Baltimore, Don Trump Jr. got in the ring. At a rally in Cincinnati last week, he poured gasoline on the fire ignited by his father when he also gratuitously attacked Baltimore. Was there, he wondered, even “one measurement” to show that Baltimore has been a “brilliant success story.”
“I’m waiting—not one. It doesn’t exist,” he said.
Most of us don’t know anything about cities we don’t live in--and it’s fair to suppose that even some Trump fans in Cincinnati, people with problems of their own after all, must have thought it odd to be assigned, out of the blue, a pop quiz on Baltimore.
But to answer Don Jr.’s question: Yes, there are several ways to characterize Baltimore as a “brilliant success story.” The first example would have to be the way the city cherishes, celebrates, and protects its long, rich past.
Hotel Revival literally sits on history: Suffragist Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s mansion (razed years ago) once stood on the Revival Hotel’s current location.The daughter of the president of B&O Railroad, Garrett inherited a fortune that she used, in part, to start Johns Hopkins Medical School on the condition that female applicants were considered and admitted without bias.
Step beyond the confines of the hotel, and history is everywhere. Just across the street, at the intersection of Mount Vernon Place and Washington Place, the cornerstone of the first monument ever erected to George Washington was laid on Independence Day in 1815. (You know—the 4th of July, the day Donald Trump thinks that “Our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports.”) The 178-foot Doric column was designed by architect Robert Mills, who later designed the Washington Monument in D.C.
If you have the stamina to climb the spiral staircase’s 227 steps inside Baltimore’s Washington Monument, you are rewarded with a top-tier view of all the city’s neighborhoods: Fells Point, Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, Hampden, Mt. Washington. The city has as many funky areas per capita as it does granite and marble monuments—Baltimore has been known for the last two centuries as “The Monumental City” for good reason. More than a third of Baltimore’s buildings are on the National Registry of Historic Places. As for the neighborhoods with rats and rodents, John Waters said, “Come on over to that neighborhood and see if you have the nerve to say it in person!”
A very pleasant alternative to climbing the monument for a view of Charm City: Eat at Topside, Revival’s rooftop restaurant and bar that boasts 13 taps and over 60 bottles and cans of whatever IPA is going strong in Baltimore. A jovial crowd of locals and hotel guests gather to eat the delicious if less than photogenic fare (a decent trade-off), which includes shareable plates: lamb ribs, duck wings, fried cauliflower, platters of oysters, and Baltimore’s classic crab cakes. The menu rotates, but every day and night it’s paired with a panoramic view of Baltimore’s cityscape with its low profile mostly unimpeded by skyscrapers.
Sure, not all the views from the top of the monument or Hotel Revival are created equal. Baltimore has its problems, as every major city does. But it’s unfair—OK, just plain stupid—to reduce the city, as Trump did, to a rat-plagued cliche. And Baltimore is more violent than Afghanistan? Now the president just sounds like an old out of touch gasbag spewing stupid shit at the dinner table.
My hotel window looked down on what is inarguably one of America’s most intriguing and beautiful architectural squares. From that same window, I could see a chic 46-room Beaux Arts brownstone built in 1882 and designed by Stanford White, architect to the Gilded Age stars. Look the other way and there are the gothic spires of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church (1872). And the George Peabody Library with its glorious cast-iron stacks is counted among the world’s most beautiful libraries.
But dominating my view is the memorial to George Washington, which, fortunately, I could see without leaving the king-size bed in my 11th-floor room. It towers above the green square where it’s stood for almost two centuries, looming over buildings equally rich with multi-layered history. Like my hotel, the aforementioned Methodist church also sits on historic ground: the site of the house where Francis Scott Key died. It was Key, Maryland lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court justice, who composed the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner” after watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812. And yes, Key was a slave owner. History is messy.
With the visual Cliff’s Notes of our nation's earliest conflicts laid out in one square—the American Revolution and the War of 1812—it’s easy to see how a first grader could mangle all that. But the president?
Hotel Revival succeeds not in spite of Baltimore but because of it. Surrounded by history, it inspires a vivid sense of place in its guests. With 500 whimsical art installations by regional artists scattered throughout the hotel and a community-based hiring policy that pulls talent from the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, Revival is opening doors for many on the cusp of budding careers. It’s thinking locally in the best ways.