Ocean City’s Congress Hall Hotel
More Lives than a CatThe Congress Hall Hotel was one of the earliest lodging establishments in the nascent summer resort of Ocean City, Maryland. From its beginning as the ?Ocean House? in 1877, only two years after the Atlantic Hotel put Ocean City on the map, until its final fiery demise in 1924, Congress Hall experienced more than its share of ups and downs. It was disadvantaged by its location at the extreme southern end of town, some distance away from the railroad station and the social scene that swirled around the Atlantic. And it was built on a low-lying section of the beach, which left it more exposed than other buildings to the ravages of the storms that periodically swooped in off the ocean. In spite of those shortcomings, Congress Hall entertained guests in Ocean City for nearly a half century. Here is its story.
But Few were Charmed
Nearly a Half Century of Serving Visitors to Ocean City
But Few were Charmed
Nearly a Half Century of Serving Visitors to Ocean City
The story begins with the ?Ocean House?, a joint venture between Berlin, Maryland residents Cornelius F. Coffin and Levin D. Lynch. The original building was a lodge for fishermen and hunters that had been built around 1869 by Coffin's father Isaac and converted into a rooming house for guests. It was located in the northern half of the oceanfront block between South 1st and South 2nd Streets. Coffin and Lynch received a deed for the property on August 1, 1877 from Stephen Taber. Taber along with his partner Hepburn Benson (d. 1869), had surveyed and patented several large tracts of beachfront property in 1868 and 1869 on which Ocean City was eventually built.
An ad placed in The Baltimore Sun on July 30, 1878 described the Ocean House as ?only 50 yards from the beach; $5 to $9/week, $1.50/day, 50?/meal; Levin D. Lynch (successor to Coffin & Lynch)?. It must not have been a successful enterprise. Granville Stokes, a principal in the Atlantic Hotel Company, bought the hotel in March 1879 for $3,500. Stokes gave it a go for the 1879 season, but he too gave up and transferred the building back to Lynch in April 1880 in exchange for forgiveness of the outstanding mortgage.
Congress Hall Hotel
William B. R. Selby, a Philadelphia businessman, land speculator and an original stockholder in the Atlantic Hotel Company, bought the Ocean House from Lynch and Coffin on April 23, 1880 for $2,000. Selby, a native of Worcester County, held a patent to nearly three hundred fifty acres of Sinepuxent Beach, a tract he called ?Selby's Venture? that was located south of the Taber holdings and is now part of the Assateague State Park. He had acquired other properties on the mainland as well. As an Atlantic Hotel stockholder, he participated in a drawing held on August 31, 1875 to distribute lots from the original town plat. His lot, number fourteen, was a desirable beachfront parcel located between Dorchester and Talbot Streets, what is today part of the site of the Belmont Towers condominium.
Selby had ambitious plans for his latest acquisition. He expanded the hotel by doubling its capacity, making it ?nearly as large as the Atlantic Hotel was last year ?. He also gave it a new name, ?Congress Hall?, an ostensible atsitet to equate his property with the well-known hostelries of the same name in the fashionable summer resorts of Cape May, New Jersey and Saratoga Springs, New York.
Selby operated the hotel on his own for two years. For the 1882 season, he leased the facility to Rennert & Co., operators of the famous Hotel Rennert in Baltimore. The arrangement appears to have been successful. For the first time, the social pages of The Sun included the names of those vacationing at the Congress Hall Hotel in Ocean City among its reports from the summer resorts (a sure sign of success). A reporter noted in August that the place ?became prominent this season? thanks to the Rennert management.
But the arrangement and attendant success didn't last long. For reasons unknown, the Rennert lease was terminated, and in April 1884 Selby was advertising Congress Hall ?[f]or sale or to let, furnished.? There were no takers, and the hotel did not open that year. Selby died on July 28, 1885 at Berlin, Maryland, leaving his wife Rebecca and sons William Jr. and Benjamin to operate the hotel. It isn't likely that Congress Hall was open in 1885, and it was shuttered again in 1886. The Selbies found a Mr. Jacobs who tried his hand at running the place in 1887. It didn't work out, and once again Congress Hall closed its doors. A Sun reporter painted this bleak picture in 1888: ?About Congress Hall, everything has the impress of desolation.? In fact, all of the Ocean City hotels were struggling to survive at that time due to a decline in business brought on by inadequate infrastructure investment and unreliable railroad service. There was even a question as to whether the resort would open at all in 1888. Congress Hall was perhaps the town's most visible symbol of the difficult times.
Shown above is the only known cover with the corner card ?Congress Hall, Ocean City, Md.? It was apparently hand-carried to the recipient, Mr. H. C. Conway of Berlin, Maryland, because there is no evidence that a stamp was affixed or a postmark applied.
The enclosed letter (shown below) is dated August 27, 1881, and requests Mr. Conway not to ?send anymore lamb until ordered, as we have considerable beef on hand.? It was signed by the proprietor, William B. R. Selby and the hotel manager, Rev. Thomas Farley.
The Sinepuxent Beach Company sparked a renewal at Ocean City in 1891 after it acquired the remainder of the late Stephen Taber?s real estate holdings on the beach and mainland (Taber having passed away in 1886) along with certain assets of the Atlantic Hotel Company. The Company embarked on a series of initiatives to improve the town?s amenities and rail service with the expectation of attracting more visitors as well as potential investors. At Congress Hall, which was operating again by 1890, the Selbies added bath-houses in order to improve accommodations for their patrons. When the hotel opened for the 1892 season on July 16, it had the capacity to lodge up to two hundred fifty guests. The Camphene Club, a group of Philadelphia police officers, chose Congress Hall that year as the site for its annual ten-day gathering at the beach.
The Selbies put the hotel up for sale after a profitable 1892 season. Mrs. Selby and her sons had mortgaged the property earlier that year along with other real estate assets from her late husband?s estate. Representatives from the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road inspected the facility in March 1893 with an eye toward potentially acquiring it, but the company ended up backing out. The Selbies apparently then worked out some arrangement with Ocean City bathhouse operator William R. Rayne, who advertised himself in 1893 as the proprietor of Congress Hall. The Sun reported in July that Rayne had purchased the hotel from Selby?s estate and ?proposes to put $10,000 worth of improvements on it?; however, there is no record of any such transaction in the Worcester County land records. Perhaps the economic recession that gripped the country during the last half of 1893 killed the deal. The Selbies did eventually sell the hotel in October to William and Margaret Beckenbaugh of Baltimore.
Most hotel operators in Ocean City reported a ?prosperous season so far? in August 1894 but the Beckenbaughs struggled at Congress Hall. They took out two mortgages in an effort to stay afloat, but ended up defaulting on both of them. The Selbies bought back the hotel for $5,000 at a foreclosure auction in March 1895, and continued to operate the hotel while looking for another buyer. It was in 1896 that they found the man who would become the hotel?s longest-running and perhaps most colorful proprietor ? Mr. John Kelley of Baltimore.
John Kelley was a native Baltimorean. From all accounts, he was garrulous, generous and fond of whiskey. It was said that he ?had the knack of making friends and keeping them? and that ?he made thousands of dollars, but they never remained in his possession? due to his charity. His friends often referred to him as ?Chief Kelley?. He had opened Kelley?s Hotel at 9 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore in 1884. From humble beginnings, it grew into a popular watering hole, famous both for its oyster bar, with its large painting of a reclining (and unclothed) woman hanging behind it, and for the celebrities that gathered there. Kelley counted Broadway composer and producer George M. Cohan, former Speaker of the House James G. Blaine and actor Richard Mansfield among his many acquaintances. How Kelley was introduced to the Selbies is unknown, but they evidently worked out a deal, and on August 31, 1896, Kelley along with his business partner, brother-in-law Charles Sees, became the proprietor of the Congress Hall Hotel in Ocean City.
Kelley had a bit of a rough start in the Ocean City hotel business. A ?very stormy day? on October 12, 1896 washed away the boardwalk that fronted Congress Hall. And in June 1897 a fire of unknown origin destroyed two houses along with some of the hotel?s outer buildings, with the hotel itself sustaining some minor damage. Nevertheless, Kelley and Sees opened the ?new? Congress Hall in July, boasting that it had been ?remodeled at an expense of ten thousand dollars? and was ?complete with every modern convenience; electric lights and bells to every room.? Prof. D. Emrich?s orchestra had also been engaged for the season?s entertainment. Kelley and Sees jumped into Ocean City?s social scene right away, hosting euchre tournaments (a highly popular card game of the time) and sponsoring the town?s first trap shooting contest in August. Congress Hall was a popular place once again. And it continued that way for several years. Kelley made a ?number of improvements? in 1899 including the erection of a jetty on the beach in front of his hotel. A newspaper report in August 1900 remarked that ?[a]t Congress Hall hardly a day passes that Manager Charles Sees does not have some entertainment for his guests?. That same year athletic fields for baseball and other games were built behind Congress Hall on the bay side, and the Camphene Club continued its tradition of taking over the hotel for ten days in September after Labor Day.
Detail from insurance map of 1897 showing John Kelley?s ?New Congress Hall? fronting on the beach at the corner of the Boardwalk and South 1st St.
Aerial view looking southeast from around Somerset Street (Seaside Hotel at left center) (ca. 1903)
Front view looking west from the ocean, partially hidden to the left of the Windsor Hotel (ca. 1903
Kelley?s personal life took a turn for the worse in 1903. In a move that was orchestrated by his wife Mary and her brother Charles Sees, Kelley?s partner, Congress Hall was placed ?under new management?. Kelley was ousted as proprietor in favor of a gentleman named Otto Benner. In September, Mary brought a suit against Kelley, accusing him of being a habitual drunkard and seeking to have him committed to an institution. Kelley was arrested and brought before a jury on September 18 to answer the charges. Kelley?s attorney asserted that Mary and her brother Charles had ?kept [Kelley] drunk all last winter? during which he had signed over his property to Mary, leaving him penniless. The two of them were now, Kelley claimed, using the hearing as a pretext ?to put him out of the way?. Mary took the witness stand for nearly five hours, testifying that her husband was ?very greatly addicted to the use of intoxicants?, that he verbally abused her and that he was unfit to manage his properties. The judge adjourned the hearing until the following Monday at one o?clock, and Kelley was paroled. Before the hearing resumed on September 21, however, Mary surprised everyone by withdrawing her suit. Her explanation for changing her mind was that her husband John did not want to be committed to a hospital. What sort of reconciliation the two of them agreed to over that intervening weekend will never be known.
The final blow of 1903 hit less than a month later. A strong storm blew in from the Atlantic Ocean and struck Ocean City late in the day on Friday, October 9 with hurricane force winds and high tides. The storm battered the town for two days. Daniel Trimper?s Windsor Hotel, on the opposite (north) corner of South 1st St from Congress Hall, collapsed around 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, and was a ?complete wreck?. The entire boardwalk south of the Windsor was washed away. Buildings in the northern section of town, however, from the Atlantic Hotel at Wicomico Street to the Plimhimmon at North 2nd Street and the cottages beyond, suffered less damage due to the higher elevation of the beachfront.
Congress Hall was badly damaged. A one hundred foot section of the front of the hotel was torn away on the 10th, and the entire old half of the building, what had once been the ?Ocean House? came crashing down the next day. ?Nothing remains of that portion of the building except a tangled mass of wreckage? was how one observer described the scene. The storm finally subsided and sunny skies returned on the afternoon of October 12. Charles Sees, Kelley?s erstwhile partner in Congress Hall, happened to be in Ocean City to repair some damage from an earlier storm in September. He provided the following eyewitness account of the storm?s destruction to The Sun:
?After breakfast [on Saturday, October 10] I returned to the [Congress Hall] hotel and there was a change in the aspect of affairs. The action of the water had lifted up the floor of the parlor until the piano was stuck up against the ceiling, the walls were quivering, and I concluded not to stay to investigate further. I got out and stood some distance away, watching the building, when I saw the porch suddenly lifted up and slapped against the house, as if a large door had suddenly been banged shut. Almost instantly part of the building fell in, and the wind continued to slam the pieces of the porch against the side, tearing it away in sections.?
Sees then assessed the future of Congress Hall:
?I think our loss will be about $4,000 and there was no insurance. I do not know what we will do about rebuilding until I get home, and we consult about it, but I am inclined to think we will rebuild on a more modern plan.?
The New Congress Hall Hotel
Kelley and Sees were able to resume limited services at what remained of Congress Hall in 1904, advertising the place simply as ?furnished rooms, light housekeeping, ocean front, cheap? (emphasis added). Just how much success they had in marketing inexpensive lodging isn?t known. But in August 1905 the partners announced big plans for the upcoming season. The ?New Congress Hall Hotel Company? had been formed with a stated capitalization of $150,000. All of the buildings on the Congress Hall site, a full city block covering 100,000 square feet, would be torn down to make room for a new hotel expected to open by June 25, 1906. Kelley and Sees were reportedly excited about the new venture and the future prospects for Ocean City.
The rebuilding process took a good deal longer than expected, but the ?new? Congress Hall Hotel finally opened in July 1909. Perhaps Kelley had run into problems in raising funds for the new venture. There were other distractions as well. His long-time partner Charles Sees had retired in 1908, leaving Kelley to run the hotel in Baltimore by himself. Kelley brought in his nephew James Loudenslager as his new partner and subsequently sold Kelley?s Hotel to him in 1909. Kelley was not in good health, and after a brief and unsuccessful attempt at another business in Baltimore, he retired with his family to Congress Hall at Ocean City in May 1910.
His retirement was short-lived. On July 8, 1910 John Kelley passed away at Congress Hall, a few weeks shy of his sixty-second birthday. The cause of death was attributed to a nervous breakdown he had reportedly suffered several months earlier. His body was returned to Baltimore, and he was buried there at Loudon Park Cemetery on July 11. In his will he left all of his property to his wife Mary, other than a watch, chain and diamond that he passed on to his son, John Jr.
Looking north up the Boardwalk. The Whip and Ferris Wheel were new additions to Trimper?s ?Luna Park? amusement area that year.
1920 advertisement for Congress Hall Hotel in Ocean City
Benjamin and Edith Frisch of Baltimore purchased the Congress Hall property from Mr. and Mrs. Barry in November 1921 for a total consideration of $101. Why the Barries essentially gave away the property is unknown. The hotel had undoubtedly been damaged during the fierce storm that struck Ocean City on February 4 ? 5, 1920. Newspaper accounts at the time reported that ?[n]ot a cottage or building on the waterfront of the ocean has escaped more or less damage?. Although the hotel was opened after the storm for the 1920 season, it?s possible that more repairs were needed than the Barries could afford to make. There is also evidence that suggests Congress Hall didn?t open at all in 1921.
Regardless of what circumstances may have led to his bargain-basement purchase, Frisch proceeded to enlarge the hotel to one hundred ten rooms from eighty. He mortgaged his Baltimore and Ocean City properties and ?remodeled, refurnished, [and] remodernized? the old hotel with the proceeds. He brought in his son Mark as a business partner (and co-mortgagor) in the venture. Along the way he also appended his name to the facility. ?Hotel Frisch?, formerly Congress Hall, opened in June 1922, advertising an ?ocean view from every room?, a ?large, bright dining-room with splendid food and excellent service? and moderate rates. Despite the improvements and promotional efforts, the hotel was not successful.
Hotel Frisch, as it appeared in an advertisement in 1922.
Congress Hall Hotel ? The Final Act
The Frisches sold out after the 1923 season, transferring the property to two Baltimore couples, Paul and Irma Codd and Leander and Reathia Gentle, on April 18, 1924. Frisch took back a mortgage of $7,500 along with title to the land and improvements. Concurrent with the sale transactions, the two couples (or Frisch) took out fire insurance policies with ten different companies, with Frisch as the named insured. Frisch assigned his interest in the mortgage to his agent, John Swope.
The new owners never had an opportunity to make the first payment on the mortgage, which was due on August 1, 1924. On Saturday, May 17 a fire of ?incendiary origin? (suspicious nature) swept through the hotel. Fire companies from Ocean City and four neighboring towns were called to fight the blaze, which threatened to spread through the southern end of town. The fire was eventually contained, but Hotel Frisch was destroyed. It was not rebuilt.
Frisch eventually settled with the various insurance companies for approximately $7,000. The two Baltimore couples were released from their mortgage obligation in July 1925 and title was returned to them. They sold the property in September to Baltimorean Lipman Kiewe, who in turn sold a half-interest to L. Brently Roberts of Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1927. Roberts? half-interest was sold at a sheriff?s auction on February 14, 1931 in order to satisfy a judgment rendered against him in Worcester County Circuit Court. Leon Bernstein, also of Atlantic City, bought Roberts? interest and subsequently deeded it to Isadore Friedlander in June. The owners of the vacant lot failed to pay property taxes for the years 1936 through 1938 and another public auction took place on June 11, 1940. The buyer this time was the Trimper family?s Windsor Resort, Inc. The site has been a part of the Trimper amusement complex at the south end of the Boardwalk ever since and nothing remains of the Congress Hall Hotel.
The corner of South 1st Street and the Boardwalk today, former site of the Congress Hall Hotel.
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