It’s a curious thing, when one towering artistic figure becomes the cultural symbol of an entire city. To wit, Gaudi in Barcelona, Kafka in Prague, and, of course…John Waters in Baltimore. But here’s the thing though: “Charm City” really does share a sense of character with the infamously iconoclastic director of Hairspray, Serial Mom and Cry-Baby – as we expediently learned when we recently joined in the fun at the fantastically kooky annual ritual known as the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race.
No kidding, half the city seemed to be there, as local visionaries and eccentrics peddled elaborate but artistically realized contraptions down the street and into the Patapsco River, attempting not to capsize, while The Ramones and Beastie Boys blasted away on the soundsystem.
To further accentuate the point, we had just traversed the city’s main roads on the back of a golf cart (no, really), as scores of people called out to our well-connected escort, American Visionary Art Museum Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger – as if she were Charles de Gaulle parading through the streets of Paris in 1944.
But for all the quirks, Baltimore is also a heady, culturally esteemed city – home to Johns Hopkins Hospital and University (where synth-pop legend, DJ and professor Thomas Dolby is currently hard at work designing futuristic curricula). And despite several previous visits, we were introduced only for the first time to some of the city’s most venerable institutions of higher-culture, in between explorations of its burgeoning hipster hoods. (For those of you who plan ahead, it should be noted that the highly anticipated Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition John Waters: Indecent Exposure, opens October 7.)
But we were actually drawn down to Maryland’s biggest city this time for the extravagant opening bash at the exceedingly cool new Revival Hotel – which was our Mount Vernon base for the rest of the trip.
Here’s what we did.
Upon entering, Bibliophiles are likely to be brought to their knees in quiet awe. Built in the late 19th Century, the Peabody’s first Provost, Nathaniel H. Morison, described it as a “cathedral of books.” And indeed, its 61-foot ceiling seems to be reaching up towards the very Heavens. It’s widely considered one of the few most important libraries in the world, and contains more than 300,000 historical texts. You can even throw a party here, for your terribly well-read friends.
This is the level of collection you expect to find in museums in marquee European cities. To be sure, its assemblage of ancient artifacts extends from Greece and Rome to Egypt, Nubia and the Near East, plus Central and South America. Greek jewelry, Roman statuary, Mughal silks, Turkish tiles, Egyptian tombs…will all keep history geeks giddy for hours on end (don’t forget to check out the creepy mummified cat). But its Eurotastic artworks from Medieval to Impressionist are literally jaw-dropping, and boast Raphael, El Greco, Bernini, Delacroix, Rousseau and Monet. The Sculpture Garden, modeled on a Genovese Renaissance courtyard, hosts intimate opera performances – especially appealing for those who just can’t sit through another twee hipster band.
“Visionary” indeed – as in, the artists featured here see things that regular human beings simply cannot access. Bohemian, eccentric…bonkers even, the museum displays what have come to be codified as outsider artworks, those that simply do not fit the overarching historical art narrative – but instead veer off into their own odd little corners of reality…or, more accurately, surreality. There’s a wall dedicated to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, DeVon Smith’s family of robots constructed from randomly collected debris, and a dazzling mosaic adorning the facade, created by museum co-founder Leroy E. Hoffberger and built entirely by local at-risk youth. The prodigious sculpture of the late drag actress and John Waters accomplice Divine is a distinctly Baltimore-centric treat.
Okay, it’s pretty hipstery. But at least there’s no beard-waxing station off in the corner of this welcoming Mount Vernon coffee/record shop (named for a Brian Eno song). In fact, you get the feeling that the crowd here might indeed be totally un-ironically excited to come in for a trendy flat white, and leave with an original cast recording from Cabaret…or a rare Pere Ubu vinyl reissue.
This stylishly boho shop (also in Mount Vernon) does kind of epitomize the inimitable iconoclasm of Baltimore. You book ahead to take a 90-minute candle making course with your amiable host Letta Moore – and in the meanwhile can shop for a well-curated selection of vintage finds. Across the street is Bottle of Bread, a more archly chic vintage boutique, also selling organic body care products, as well as a quirky selection of jewelry and accessories. (Note: for cathedral lovers, the awe-inspiring, gothic revival style First Presbyterian and United Methodist churches can be visited on the walk back to the hotel.)
In these post-4/20 times, you’d be inclined to assume this was more a dispensary-of-the-moment, by the name. But seriously, whatever the origin of your hunger, their kimchi fried rice bowls are like manna from high heaven. A cool coffee shop by morning, it morphs into a contemporary-Korean-influenced hotspot by lunchtime. Come for street style noodles, banh mi, build-a-bowls and refreshing cocktails, like the Hibiscus Twist and the Lavender Collins.
“…on the corner of our street.” In New York, food halls can be slightly pretentious, food-nerd affairs. But R House is pure unadulterated fun (they had a roving Mariachi band when we were there), where you can bop around from station to station, assembling a meal with impressive international reach. White Envelope’s Venezuelan arepas, be.bim’s Korean BBQ, creative tacos from Amano, ARBA’s Mediterranean street food…and the ridiculously decadent fried chicken sandwiches from BRD are all of life-changing tastiness. Roll on into evening with cocktails from r.bar, to a knowing soundtrack that might include your fave Talking Heads and Gang of Four tracks – and plan to while away long, langorous summer nights on the sprawling terrace. It anchors the burgeoningly hip Hampden neighborhood.
This is ground zero of the new Baltimore hip, with a charmingly off-kilter assemblage of indie boutiques and eateries. Start the day with pancakes, an omelette or a skillet at the kitschy breakfast counter that is Chuck’s Trading Post…then hit the shops: Trohv for chic to whimsical decor items, Sugar for the hippest selection of “adult toys,” and HONtown for kitchsy gifts and souvenirs (there’s also a groovy little cafe attached).
The Revival’s sprawling rooftop restaurant is a total scene – in the best of all possible ways – with virtually 360 views, a buzzing central bar, and a foosball-and-billiards adorned lounge (there’s also a charmingly shambolic sun room for private events). The furniture was all culled from salvage, with the highlight being table tops made from vintage bowling lanes – while the menu has a full complement of oysters, mussels and clams, to pair up with such elevated takes on down home delectables as smoked short rib, pig’s ear bacon bratwurst and whole fried blue catfish. Drinks alchemist Chelsea Gregorie is as cool as they come – and turns out refined but playful cocktails like the rum-based “Why’d It Have To Be Snakes?”, the gin-based Shrubs n’ Rosés, and The Devil Wears Prata, with vodka and Avua Prata cachaça. Mad fun all around.
The hipsterization of so many past-their-prime hotels hasn’t necessarily always worked out to great effect. But JDV Hotels‘ Revival genuinely nails it on all counts. First, SLDesign have smartly woven the aesthetic of Baltimore directly into its design philosophy – and there are corresponding artworks, furniture and fascinating bric-a-brac throughout the property bearing this out. (Including an architectural model of the previous 1980s revamp.)
In the spacious rooms, chicly unmatched drapes and floor/wall coverings create a unique stylistic iconoclasm, and furnishings nod to Arts & Crafts unfussiness. While Philadelphia’s Paradigm Gallery + Studio curated the in-room art in a distinctly thought-provoking manner. Downstairs, the Square Meal ground floor restaurant is actually a great people watching scene at breakfast, and at dinner morphs into something a bit more sophisticated – with a creative selection of vegetable focused plates, entrees including crispy skin Maryland rock fish, and braised pork cheek, as well as a top class wine selection. A little secret? There are three B-Side Karaoke rooms at the hotel, for your own America’s Got Talent moments.
The Revival has also undertaken an ambitious program of local partnerships, from food to shopping to culture – which makes for a fully immersive stay…especially if you’re new to Baltimore.
Best of all, its location right on Monument Square means it’s not only at the center of the entire city, but specifically the burgeoning Mount Vernon neighborhood – which boasts an engaging mix of history and contemporary buzz.