Journalist and Baltimore historian Carleton Jones called David Barnum’s City Hotel “by all odds the greatest hostelry historically in city history” (Jones, Lost Baltimore Landmarks, p. 33).
The hotel’s guest register contains the signatures of numerous 19th century worthies, including Confederate spy Belle Boyd, John Wilkes Booth, and some of the Harper’s Ferry conspirators. Barnum’s was Charles Dickens’ favorite American hotel. President John Quincy Adams was a guest when the hotel was new.
Located on North Calvert Street at Fayette, the hotel was built in 1825 and torn down ca. 1889; the Equitable building stands in its place.
Jones learned that the hotel had originally resembled Boston’s Tremont House, but had been “gussied up like some aging dowager” by the 1860s with “bulging iron balconies” (Jones, 33). The online collaborative project Maryland’s Digital Cultural Heritage has an 1835 drawing that shows the hotel’s original design.
Its basement, recounts John Thomas Scharf, was “of granite from the Susquehanna, near Port Deposit, and the front appointments of this story were originally used as a post office” (History of Baltimore City and County, p. 516).
It was, writes Molly Berger, “the country’s most renowned hostelry at the time.” Four stories tall, and encompassing 172 bedrooms and suites, “an enormous 86 by 30 foot dining room, plus another room of equal size to accommodate ‘public dinner parties’ and balls. . . a reading room” open to the public, all illuminated by gas lighting, the City Hotel set a new standard for comfort and service (Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929, pp. 18 ff.)
Philadelphia architect Norris Gershon Starkwether gave the hotel its makeover in the late 1850s. The details Jones loathes were drawn from Starkwether’s fanciful designs of Italianate villas (Hayward and Shivers, The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, pp. 132-133).
Published by William Moody Chase, this stereograph was probably made ca. 1862-1876, the period, according to McCulloh, when yellow mounts dominated and card stock had grown thicker (McCulloh, Card Photographs: A Guide to Their History and Value, 1981, p. 79)
Neither a monument, a public institution nor a personal mansion, the hotel was nevertheless a fit subject stereo-optical subject for an armchair tourist. Barnum’s City Hotel, situated in the heart of Monument Square, was a sign of Baltimore’s coming of age as a great American city.