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The Tidewater Inn’s illustrious history has parlayed into its stately status still enjoyed today

Oct 09, 2015 02:20PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Where Gracious Plenty Still Rules the Board

The Tidewater Inn’s illustrious history has parlayed into its stately status still enjoyed today

By Cliff Rhys James // Photos Courtesy of Tidewater Inn

Even after the fire’s hateful roar had faded, when the flames were long vanquished and black smoke had cleared from the smoldering ruins; even after the bay breezes had driven off the pungent scent of charred remains; even then, especially then, the fever dream-like shock of it all hung in the minds of the townspeople. For weeks and months many of them shuffled around like blinking storm survivors emerging into the light from underground shelters trying to absorb some lesser harsh reality. The Avon Hotel, whose advertising slogan was “Where Gracious Plenty Rules the Board” had stood on that corner in the center of that town for longer than most could remember—for longer than many had lived. In fact, the hotel’s roots, on the corner of that charming Maryland town, dated back to 1712. Now, in the aftermath of the blazing inferno, the once stately wood structure was reduced to blackened timbers scattered among the gray heaps of cooling ash.

But in 1947, three years after the Avon was consumed by fire and in the midst of a post WWII building materials shortage when construction steel was expensive and hard to find, local businessman Arthur Johnson Grymes broke ground on a new hotel. In stepping forward when he did, Mr. Grymes not only restored a rich tradition of gracious Eastern Shore hospitality, he rebuilt one of the most iconic social, cultural, and architectural touchstones in the community’s history. Employing only the finest materials and methods like a one-foot thick re-bared cement floor, steel I-beam supports, colonial design inspired brick exterior, high ceilings, and fine interior appointments cost considerable time and money. But it also ensured that his treasured showcase was built to last. Then finally, on September 3, 1949, with more than 4,000 people in attendance, the Tidewater Inn, rising in the heart of Easton like a Phoenix from the ashes, celebrated its grand opening.

Nestled in the bucolic setting of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, with its rich soil, abundant wildlife, and Chesapeake Bay vistas, The Tidewater Inn (and Avon Hotel before it) had always attracted more than its share of gentlemen hunters and genteel estate owners. Bird hunters would often arrive with dogs on leash and geese in hand after a successful day in the nearby fields and streams. Then, while the dogs were fed in a basement kennel, the hunters would shower and dress in their luxurious guest rooms before reconvening in the hotel’s restaurant for a fine meal: the catch of the day cleaned, cooked, and served by the kitchen staff under the expert guidance of the executive chef.
It didn’t take long for word to spread far beyond this group, enabling the town and hotel to become a crossroads of sorts to history in the making. It was and is a history fueled by the presence of many famous people from the worlds of politics, sports, and entertainment. Some sought the town’s historic charm to escape the harsh glare of public lives or the pace of hectic schedules. Others stayed at the Tidewater Inn while filming movies, celebrating with friends, or performing at the Avalon Theatre. Political figures included John and Robert Kennedy, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. From the sports world came heroes and champions such as Johnny Unitas and the Williams sisters of tennis fame—Serena and Venus. But not surprisingly, it was the glamorous world of entertainment that supplied the most colorful parade of high profile celebrities through the years. Among them were the likes of Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Wagner, Ozzie Davis, Walter Cronkite, John Forsythe, Robert Mitchum (who lived in nearby Trappe), Whoopi Goldberg, Dionne Warwick, Joan Rivers, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughn. Well known author James Michener stayed and dined many times during his Eastern Shore years. And to the surprise and delight of townspeople on the street, Ann Miller, whose famous legs were insured for a million dollars, once tap danced her way across the intersection of Dover and South Harrison streets between the Avalon, where she was performing, and the Tidewater Inn, where she was staying.

Although a major expansion added the Gold Ballroom and an additional wing of guestrooms in 1954, the salad days would not last forever—they never do. Even a blue chip establishment with name recognition must weather the ups and downs of the business cycle, as well as the economic storms which periodically batter a town, a region, and a nation. And so at various times in the past, the hotel fell upon not so good, even hard, times. Then the Freeman Companies purchased the property in 2005 and not only had it successfully placed on the national historic register, but invested millions of dollars in long overdue restoration work of the physical structure. Their litany of improvements was by no means complete, but did succeed in moving the hotel nearer to re-establishing its landmark status. Unfortunately, both company namesakes, Messrs. Freeman—Sr. and Jr.—passed away within a year of each other, one in a tragic helicopter accident. The combination of a depressed national economy, declining hotel operating profit, and the sudden loss of company leadership proved to be a chasm too large for the Freeman Companies to overcome. And the Tidewater Inn was back up for sale.

For a while things looked bleak. One group of possible investors was concerned about the age and condition of the building. They also seemed to lack a vision for how to construct a viable operating plan in the midst of the severe recession. Other potential investors approached the hotel with the thought of converting the property to condominiums. Yes, that’s right; Maryland almost lost a historic hospitality gem in the heart of Easton. What was clearly needed was the emergence of a modern day Arthur Johnson Grymes; someone to once again step forward into the breach of uncertainty with the resilience, resources, and skill to revive a floundering business.

After two and half years of tough negotiations during which time an anemic recovery stumbled along, one man would accept the challenge and inherit the mantle. By stepping forward in October of 2009 to acquire the Tidewater Inn, John Wilson inhabited the role of latter day rescuer. It’s a role he seems to embrace with certain equanimity as we sit talking in the newly refurbished library room just off the main lobby. “When I looked around and saw all these wonderful public spaces with all the detail work set beneath high ceilings, I wanted to make it a place of celebration,” John says from his comfortable upholstered leather chair. I know that his chair is comfortable because I’m sitting in the matching one next to the coffee table. “Weddings, social gatherings, company meetings, we had experience with all of that from running the Beach Club in almost the same market.” The Beach Club he refers to is the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club. “We bought some property at the base of the Bay Bridge on Kent Island in 1999,” he continues in a friendly, conversational tone. “The marina had been expanding and actually the dredged material from the bay formed the six acres of land on the water where we built the Beach Club. We’ve recently added another 15 acres on a long term lease with Queen Anne’s County, but we’ll come to that a bit later,” he says shifting back to the Hotel. “My basic feeling here was that this was too good of a classic asset not to buy and fix up. The price had to be right but we felt we had a business plan that would make it work. The Inn’s name and reputation were attractions for us as well. The unique history, its role in the life of the Eastern Shore, we felt there was real value here that we could better promote and leverage.” John grows more animated as he warms to his subject. “We could feel it in the hallways and see it in the employees—the hospitality tradition that had grown over the years—and all the wonderful stories about the famous people who had stayed as guests. There was and is a really unique sense of place here.”

Despite the previous owners $5 million plus investment in improvements, John knew that the Inn would require still more to realize its potential and achieve the vision he had for the property. As an experienced investor he also “went to school” on actions of the previous owners by evaluating what had been tried, what had worked, what had failed, and why? “They tried to make this place into a five star facility with high end products, expensive gourmet meals, high thread count sheets, the works,” he tells me. “In the basement we found boxes of silver plated wine menus that probably cost $400 each along with all kinds of expensive China. It was all presentation. Then they brought in designers and interior architects to give the place an almost New York chic feel.” He shakes his head slowly, “The market segments, the price points—it didn’t work.”

What did work was for John to invest another $5 million plus in post acquisition improvements. The upgrades were designed to enhance the guest experience, improve staff effectiveness, and reduce operating costs. “One month during our first winter of operation, we had a $17,000 fuel bill!” He still grimaces when talking about it. The Inn stored #2 fuel oil in a 10,000 gallon underground storage tank and burned it in two 1945 vintage boilers in the basement. “It took us a year and a half, some creative contractors, and a bunch of money, but now we have a modern gas-fired forced air heating and air conditioning system with individual room controls.”

“What else did $5 million plus get us in the way of restorations and improvements?” he asks rhetorically. He then proceeds to the answer, “Once we dug up the 10,000 gallon tank we made both hardscape and landscape improvements in the walled courtyard area just outside the Crystal Ballroom; we totally renovated the Gold Ballroom; created Hunter’s Tavern; upgraded computer-based management and accounting systems so we could make better decisions; and then went through and improved the guest rooms, including fully refurnishing all rooms on the fourth floor, which were empty when we bought the place.” When he pauses to catch his breath I realize he’s far from finished. In addition to bringing in new guest room furniture, beds, bathroom upgrades, artwork, sheets, blankets and shams, pillow covers, dust ruffles, and carpet, they completed the renovations by knocking down walls and creating suites. “We have,” he pauses to think for a moment, “about eighteen various kinds of suites, including Grand Suites and Junior Suites among our 97 total rooms. They’re on all four floors and most of them are unique and different in some way.”
Between continuing improvements, attention to detail, and a willingness to embrace new ideas, it’s clear that John Wilson views the Tidewater Inn as a work in progress. But what’s also clear is that he’s a man who plans his work, then works his plan with both discipline and determination. After showing me the newly completed circular brick-walled, garden-like gathering space with its permanent tent supported by beautifully finished yacht quality wood beams, I realize just how well coordinated his plan is for the Inn’s confident expansion into the “event or function” market. “We learned to become experts in that market at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club,” he tells me. “Brides, families, planners; their different needs for weddings; the product, the service, the relationships; we now do it here as well.” Standing beneath the wood beams and canvas of this unique public gathering space, he adds, “Between the combination of the Crystal Ballroom with its adjacent courtyard and the Gold Ballroom with this space,” his arm swings in a gesturing arc, “ we can now easily accommodate two weddings simultaneously.”

But he’s quick to point out that while weddings will play a major part of the Tidewater Inn’s expansion plans into the “event or function” market, they will by no means be the only part. “It includes charities, balls, seminars, as well as festival events like the Waterfowl Festival, Plein Air, and Festival of Trees, for which Easton has become famous,” he assures me. “We’re also hosting many more business and professional meetings for group sizes between 15 and 200 people and they’re coming from all over the place.”

“Despite the economy, we feel pretty good about where we are at this point,” he says in summing it all up. “We sit in the heart of a charming, historic town, with great walkability; we’re staffed by a wonderful group of people who understand our unique tradition of hospitality; and we’ve now completed many of the larger restoration projects to upgrade the property. We’ll continue getting better and making improvements like that,” he motions toward the new Skipjack bar opposite the Decanter Room, “so that when the economy strengthens, it will all come together for us, the Town of Easton, the Eastern Shore, and points beyond.”