Blending Charm with Comfort
by Mary Lou Baker
Have you met Peg Bednarsky – the official innkeeper for the Historic Inns of Annapolis? A lot of Annapolitans know this dynamic lady, but probably are unaware that in 2011 she was selected Innkeeper of the Year by Historic Hotels of America. The ceremony was held at the Greenbrier Hotel – the United States gold standard for luxury resorts.
The award was the latest in a series of honors for Bednarsky, who served as president of both the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association and the Maryland Tourism Council. Awarded the Most Valuable Volunteer Award by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, she was recognized as one of the “Five Women Who Make a Difference,” in Annapolis during the administration of former Mayor Ellen Moyer. Accolades have also come from the Maryland Senate and the Maryland House of Delegates.
None of these testimonials change her laser focus on a job she describes as “making people happy.” Bednarsky admits she is “the motherly type,” keeping a close eye on her three charges: The Maryland Inn at Church Circle, the Governor Calvert House on State Circle and the Robert Johnson House at 23 School Street across from the Governor’s Mansion. Taken together, they are a precious legacy in the history of Maryland’s capital city.
Forty-three years ago Bednarsky joined the staff of the Maryland Inn, the imposing brick building which has welcomed guests since 1776. She came on board shortly after Annapolis visionary Paul Pearson bought the historic hostelry and rescued the grand dame from a slow decline by extensively restoring the structure and renovating its public spaces and forty-four guest rooms.
Pearson subsequently acquired two other historic buildings on State Circle, opening the 29-room Robert Johnson House in 1983 and the 51-room Governor Calvert House a year later. Bringing these centuries-old properties up to current standards was so extremely expensive it eventually depleted Pearson’s bank account. However it failed to blur his vision of uniting the three as living museums of a glorious era in Maryland’s history.
In 1994, Remington Hotel Group (RHG) of Dallas, Texas acquired the three properties. According to Bednarsky, it was a smooth transition. “RHG owned several boutique hotels (among them the Melrose and Churchill hotels in Washington, D.C.) and recognized the potential of marketing the three locations as the Historic Inns of Annapolis,” she says.
The flagship of this trio remains the Maryland Inn where elegant Victorian porches beckon guests into a simple lobby. There, old photographs depicting life in the “olden days” adorn the walls. Today, looking much the same, it marks the head of Main Street with a telescopic view of the waters of the Annapolis Harbor. In colonial times, they would have seen tobacco farmers roll 500-pound hogsheads filled with tobacco down the hill to ships waiting in the harbor.
Countless generations have danced the night away in The Duke of Gloucester ballroom on the first floor, where a lobby and living room invite guests to linger over complimentary cups of a seasonal beverage of mulled cider or iced tea. Guest rooms and suites, each with its own small bathroom, are spread out on the upper three stories.
Some of them date back to the Revolutionary era, potentially a scary thought to 21st century travelers, but all are tastefully furnished with four-poster beds and handsome antique reproductions. When someone books a room it is essential to be specific about preferences in room size and location. There is a lot of variety in the style, though not the quality, of the accommodations here – ranging from spacious suites to simple singles.
Of the rooms I viewed, #314 and #407 were the most desirable because of their panoramic views of the rooftops of old Main Street buildings, nearby church steeples and, on a clear day, sailboats on the Annapolis Harbor.
From another window, there is a close-up of the Annapolis State House and the busy sidewalks below. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and George Washington were among the historical men who visited the inn, the site of a celebration by Maryland legislators. We might wonder what those historic heavyweights would make of the well-equipped fitness room recently installed in the lower level?
Yet the heart of the Maryland Inn is the Treaty of Paris restaurant, so named for the agreement signed by the French government and ratified in Annapolis in the 1700s. The ‘Treaty’, with its coziest tables near one of the working fireplaces, opens for breakfast at 7 am. Get there early enough during the legislative session and you might recognize some of your state legislators and lobbyists reviewing the day’s agenda.
Dinner is a leisurely trip backwards to the days when manners mattered and service was a matter of professional and personal pride. “I feel like we are taking a step back into history,” whispered a woman sitting nearby when I dined there one Saturday evening. She and her husband were treating their daughter and her fiancée to dinner, insisting they try the restaurant’s famous crab cake. “It’s only $8 if you add it to your entrée,” she said to the young man in hushed tones.
Specialties of the house are the fabulous popovers served hot from the oven; crab bisque laden with lump Maryland crabmeat and kissed with sherry, fresh rockfish layered with creamy crab imperial and frosted with shrimp sauce; and a classic French onion soup crowned with melted cheese. For many years the go-to place for special occasion dining, the Treaty of Paris could now be considered one of the town’s “best kept secrets.
Two more “secrets” are thriving under the roof of the Maryland Inn. One is the Drummer’s Lot, a proper pub presided over by a bartender fondly known as “Peanuts.” The other is the lounge-like Starbucks that occupies space once known as the unofficial home of nationally-known guitarist Charlie Byrd and numerous jazz greats. For years it was known as the King of France Tavern, drawing music lovers from Maryland and D.C. with its top-notch talent. Photos of Stef Scraggier, Ethel Ennis, Dave Brubeck and Monty Alexander decorate the ancient brick walls of two rooms furnished with comfortable leather couches and tables where today patrons come for the WiFi as well as caffeine.
Just around the corner is the modest façade of the Robert Johnson House, built in 1773. As we enter the narrow front door and pass a steep stairway, we spy a middle-aged couple catching up on their reading in the small public living room. Peg Bednarsky greets them – and observes that this particular property is popular with people looking for reasonable accommodations in a place easily accessible to Annapolis attractions. When the General Assembly is in session, many legislators and lobbyists make it their ‘home-away-from-home’. Most of the 29 rooms are small but immaculate and equipped with private baths as well as a 42” flat screen TVs. The fanciest lodging in this property is a spacious two-story suite in a townhouse attached to the main building, and is named after Bednarsky.
Moving further along State Circle, we arrive at the historic home of two former Maryland governors – both named Calvert. Bednarsky points out a 1900s photo of the house showing several well-dressed children playing with hoops on the sidewalk. She says that one of the family’s descendants returned recently as a guest at the hotel, recognized herself in a picture and subsequently sent Bednarsky a letter identifying both the children and the grown-ups watching them from the second-story porch. Talk about “six degrees.”
Take time to wander through the public rooms and hallways of the Calvert House, lined with wonderful old photographs restored by the late Marion Warren. Check out an underground display of America’s first heating system – a Hypocaust, dating from the 1720s and visible through the industrial-strength glass floor. It exposes an intricate device that created steam and channeled its heat through pipes leading to the living area of the privileged families who lived here long ago.
Bednarsky’s office is in the 51-room Governor Calvert House, where she and her staff greet guests with rare, genuine warmth. The hotel is a busy place, hosting 80 weddings last year and scores of private meetings. Sit in either of the public rooms that flank the entry hall and chances are you may spy Governor O’Malley, Mike Busch, Mike Miller, Jay Schwartz and other ‘movers and shakers’ leaving their footprints on the Inn’s handsome Oriental rugs.
Brown Engineering was the architectural firm that accomplished the building’s dramatic transformation from outdated residence to eye-catching public spaces. A three-story mural of the State House soars to the ceiling of the airy atrium, sided by a reception area and faced with a brick-paved outdoor terrace. Upstairs guest rooms, some larger than others, are impeccably furnished with antique reproductions and equipped with big-screen TVs and outsized wing chairs. Rich velvet throws at the end of each bed tempt guests to curl up with a good book.
Though steeped in tradition, Historic Inns of Annapolis strive to keep current with the amenities expected by 21st century travelers. General Manager Mike Radike came on board a year ago, bringing with him what Bednarsky calls “great new concepts and ideas. Mike blends well with both our employees and guests – often joining me in welcoming people in our parlors,” she says.
Bednarsky and her colleagues are doing a masterful job in their daily efforts to preserve the glorious history of Annapolis—and provide a taste of those historic times to their guests.