ANNAPOLIS – If George Washington were to return to the Annapolis he loved, a town he once proposed as the nation’s capital, he would surely want to stop by the Maryland Inn, a familiar landmark even in 18th century Annapolis.
Legend has it that at one time Washington lost his horse in a friendly wager at the Inn’s King of France Tavern and that the first president liked to entertain friends there over a pint. But these days, the bill of fare might be a bit different, and the Father of His Country might instead be found checking his email over a Tazo Chai Creme Frappuccino Blended Tea – grande, of course.
Or so it could be if Remington Hotels succeeds in its current proposal to bring a fourth Starbucks to Annapolis – this one in one of the historic district’s landmark buildings.
Before the company can add the venerable Maryland Inn – which opened in 1776 – to its list of hotels housing the famous coffee chain, it first must pass muster with the guardians of historic Annapolis: the Historic Preservation Commission, the Historic Annapolis Foundation and the Maryland Historical Trust.
Yet, each of these groups says it has no concern – or no legal right to be concerned – about the use of the Inn’s tavern space for a Starbucks as long as the company maintains the exterior building.
“We don’t care about chains. There are chains all over town,” said Greg Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. “Our concern, because it’s such a historic building, was that structural changes…be reasonable and be approved.”
But for some, who lived through the more recent history of Annapolis, the building itself will suffer an immeasurable loss of character. To later generations of Annapolitans, the tavern was famous not for George Washington but for jazz – it was the home base of jazz legend Charlie Byrd who held forth at the King of France Tavern for more than 20 years.
“Mind you, I drink Starbucks coffee and I love it, but the idea of putting up something commercial on that corner made me ill,” Elana Byrd, sister-in-law of the late musician said. “I’ve had a love affair going with the place ever since I met my husband” in the King of France Tavern.
On the other hand, the idea of entertaining in a coffee house in colonial Annapolis wouldn’t be all that much of a stretch.
Glenn Campbell, historian for Historic Annapolis, has been studying one such coffeehouse, owned by Cornelius and Mary Howard. It stood just a few doors down on Main Street from the Maryland Inn – about where Joss Sushi is today.
“That coffee house was a very important place in Annapolis in the 18th century,” he said. “Washington often entertained at the coffee house. … Jefferson and Madison and all the local patriots at the time” would have been familiar with it.
Campbell said history lends itself to the “idea of a coffee house as a place where people can get together and share conversation.”
But for Elana Byrd, Starbucks at the Maryland Inn is a conversation killer.
“I am amazed. I am saddened. I would never walk into a Starbucks at that location,” she said.
The Historic Preservation Commission will meet on Dec. 13 to discuss the proposal for renovating the interior and replacing the current red awning and purple King of France Tavern sign with a green Starbucks signage, including a three-foot wooden sign.
Donna Hole, chief of Historic Preservation in Annapolis, referred to the upcoming decision as “an interesting challenge” given the Inn’s history and the fact that stands on the old town’s drummer’s lot, where the drummer would call the legislature to session.
Still, she sees no obvious reason for denying the proposal. Perhaps a suggestion in the reduction of sign size is in order, though not necessarily required.
Hole said the company is well within legal rights to put up a sign on Main Street in proportion to its frontage on the street – which could mean a fairly large sign. No signs are planned for the Church Circle side of the Inn.
“There’s no room on Church Circle. They’ve got like four feet and who sees it when they’re trying to make that turn?” she asked.
Remington Hotels, which owns all of the Historic Inns in Annapolis, said it is trying to stay close to the historic nature of the hotel. The green Starbucks sign will be made of wood, the floors will still be brick – albeit covered by various throw rugs and overstuffed couches – and the exposed beams will still be exposed.
If the town is lucky, maybe the company will even reopen the underground tunnel behind the wine cellar, the one that leads to the State House. But judging by the plans, only the Starbucks employees in the storage room will have a chance at that.
“We have not heard anything negative. Anyone we’ve talked to is enthusiastic,” said Vice President of Business Development Jack McHugh.
Yet, even Hole says the idea of another chain in Annapolis’s historic district is hard to accept.
“It’s not a deal killer, but sadly it takes away from the uniqueness of the property when you have the ubiquitous sign,” she said. “I think it does dilute the unique character of each historic district.”
For her part, Elana Byrd is still in shock. “What next?” she asked. “Are we going to have golden arches over Middleton Tavern?”