Just as it was along Main Street 120 years ago, the Atlantic Hotel is the hub of activity in historic Berlin. We traveled back in time to chronicle its rich history and discovered it’s a tale steeped in ambition, neglect and resurrection

Written By: Nick Brandi | Photographer: Grant L. Gursky

One of the many things to love about Berlin is the patina of pristine antiquity that seems to coat every inch of its popular downtown area. Undoubtedly, the jewel in the crown of this uniquely exquisite slice of Americana is the landmark Atlantic Hotel. Well, the grande dame of Berlin is celebrating her 120th birthday this year, and despite some considerable trials and tribulations along the way, the elegant Victorian lady has never been better.

After a devastating fire in 1894 destroyed much of the town and the hotel along with it, a new hotel was constructed in 1895 that replaced its previous incarnation on the site of an even earlier hostelry called the National Hotel. At the behest of the town fathers, the new building was made of brick, as were all the structures built in the downtown area after the fire.

That brand-new hotel was owned and operated by Horace Harmonson and his wife, Virginia Lingo-Harmonson. They created what was then called the Hotel Atlantic as an inn that basically catered to the needs of drummers, traveling door-to-door salesmen who peddled their wares along the American countryside through the turn of 
the century.

The Harmonsons had a livery stable at the rear of the hotel where horses, mules and carriages could be sold or rented. Shrewdly, they added a horse-drawn bus, which they used pick up drummers and other guests at the train station for transport back to the hotel. The drummers would check into the hotel, then rent a horse and carriage in which to make their sales calls. Families, meanwhile, would also rent the carriages, for daytrips and vacations at the beach in Ocean City.

“On the street level, which is now Drummer’s Café, there was an office with a telegraph where the drummers could work, then place their orders with the suppliers via telegraph,” said John Fager, who, with his wife, Michelle, is currently responsible for the daily operations of the hotel. “There was also a men-only bar on that level; upstairs, there was a ladies-only parlor where the women staying at the hotel could socialize and get away from the men.

“In the early years of the telephone, the Atlantic Hotel had the only switchboard in town,” John continued. “So, when the armistice was signed ending World War I, whoever was at the hotel switchboard would have been the first in town to know.”

After nearly a half-century of uninterrupted success, the Atlantic Hotel began to fall on hard times. It was post-World War II, and more and more Americans had their own cars. Traveling salesmen could now pinpoint new customers in a broader spectrum of areas and get to them in a fraction of the time. Families could pile into their own cars and explore new terrain for vacations. With reliance on the rails at an all-time low, people didn’t need to go through Berlin to get to Ocean City anymore, and the town began to wither. Ultimately, more than half the shops in town closed down. To add insult to injury, a rather unsightly block-style building was constructed in front of the hotel that not only crushed under its weight the garden that had once flourished there but also obscured from view the hotel’s distinctive façade, essentially erasing the town’s proud heritage from the sight and minds of its inhabitants.

By the 1960s and ’70s, time and neglect had decayed the Atlantic Hotel from a bastion of rustic hospitality to a $3-a-night flophouse that served only the seediest elements of the community. It was even rumored that a local prostitute made the Atlantic her place of trade, with reports of men lining the hotel’s exterior on Friday nights, the cash from their weekly paychecks clenched in their impatient fists.

“Then came two key events that essentially paved the way for what I think of as 21st-century Berlin or the Berlin renaissance — and with it, the resurrection of the Atlantic Hotel,” said Berlin’s sitting mayor, William “Gee” Williams III. “The first was due to the foresight of visionaries like Joe Moore and Ed Hammond, who in or around the mid-1970s, when the original Buckingham Elementary school was torn down, realized that we needed a historical district in Berlin that would protect and preserve its important structures. Joe and Ed drafted and championed into passage the historic-district ordinance that was responsible for ensuring that the town’s aesthetic and architectural heritage would survive. It began with the South Main Street area but quickly spread to encompass all of Main Street, including the hotel.”

Williams — currently serving his second elected term — went on to say that the other key event occurred in the 1980s, when two more Berlin visionaries made a dubious investment that initially earned them only scorn and taunting from the locals.

“In the early ’80s, Jim Barrett, of Barrett Chevrolet, and Bill Freeman, of the Treasure Chest, bought the building where Stuarts’ Antiques is now. It had been a grocery store with an adjacent five-and-dime and later a variety store,” the mayor recalled. “In its place they built the elegant Renaissance Plaza, which offered small commercial units for rent as well as apartments.

“Many of the citizens around town would see Bill and Jim and tease them, saying, ‘How’s that great investment of yours going?’” the mayor continued, “but Bill and Jim had the last laugh because within six months, every single unit of Renaissance Plaza was occupied by a paying tenant.”

Seeing this unlikely result not only sparked a sense of hope among the citizens of Berlin for the first time in decades, it inspired further investment in the ailing town.

Following his triumph with Renaissance Plaza, it was Jim Barrett, once again, who was the white knight — though this time his sights were set squarely on the hapless Atlantic Hotel. There was already talk around town of razing the building, to make room for, what else, a parking lot. Barrett got in touch with attorney Ed Hammond, already a savior in his own right, and in the spring of 1986 the two arranged to purchase the hotel. Despite a bleak initial prospectus regarding the hotel’s financial viability, the two united with eight other community pillars, including, the Mariners, Hamiltons, Hollands, Reese F. Cropper II, Elizabeth Henry Hall, Charles “Buddy” Jenkins, and the Eshams, Billy and Junior, and formed a 10-share coalition, at $100,000 each, to own and restore the Atlantic Hotel.

The lengthy and painstaking renovation wound up costing everyone considerably more than their initial investments, but the wheels were now in motion, and the resurrection of the Atlantic Hotel — and Berlin along with it — had begun.

This is not to say it was smooth sailing for the hotel from that point forward. Turning a profit was often a challenge. Sometimes, townsfolk would refer to the Atlantic’s new owners as “The 10 Fools” because of the tenuousness of their investment. Things got so dicey, in fact, that on New Year’s Day of 2009, the Atlantic’s innkeeper abruptly packed up and left town without so much as a good-bye.

“That was like a knife right in the heart of the town,” John recalled. “People were getting more than a little concerned because in key ways, the Atlantic Hotel is and has been the heartbeat of this town.”

If it’s true that every cloud has a silver lining, then the unceremonious flight of the innkeeper is the best thing that could have happened to the hotel. With Fager’s Island an unqualified success, it’s difficult to imagine a better team to take the reins of the Atlantic than John and Michelle Fager. With their arrival came a new infusion of capital and some extensive yet pivotal upgrades. Under the direction of Angela Reynolds, the hotel saw a complete restoration of the Victorian rooms, ladies parlor and hallways, in addition to new bedding, linens and flat-screen TVs.

Today, majestic Atlantic Hotel is once again basking in the glow of its former glory — right on the center stage of America’s coolest small town, Berlin, Md.

Editor’s note
: Thanks to Susan Taylor of the Calvin B. Taylor House Museum in Berlin for her assistance with this story.


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