Take a stroll down Main Street in Berlin. Think back to your favorite Berlin event you attended in the past few years…the NYE Ball Drop, the Fiddler’s Convention, the Berlin Christmas Parade. Picture the iconic images that come to mind when you think of America’s Coolest Small Town. Now, try to play out any of those scenarios without the Atlantic Hotel. Can you do it? Can you really imagine Main Street, Berlin events, or even the Town of Berlin without its iconic hotel? We sure can’t.
2015 marks the 120th Anniversary of The Atlantic Hotel in Berlin, and as we sat with current owner John Fager last week, reminiscing on the history of the town’s centerpiece, we found ourselves trying to imagine a Berlin without the beloved hotel. It seems silly to place so much importance on a single architectural structure, but when you consider the historical significance of a business that has remained in operation for 120 years, or the roll that the hotel has played in the evolution of the town, or the dedication put forth by local community members to keep the hotel operating when it seemed on the brink of destruction, well, it doesn’t seem so silly after all. “I call it the heartbeat of Berlin,” says Fager of the hotel, and we couldn’t agree more.
The hotel first opened its doors in 1895, when the completion of the railroad brought an increase in travelers to the tiny Eastern Shore town of Berlin. More specifically, ‘drummers’ would arrive by train from Baltimore or DC to make sales and peddle goods around town. The hotel served as a hub of operations for the salesmen, with the bar operating as an office space for many as the salesmen telegraphed, and later, phoned-in orders. “It was basically a traveling salesman hotel,” explained Fager. “It’s always been the center of Berlin.”
Over the past 120 years, the hotel has seen many changes with the ebb and flow of time, some resulting in a boom in business, with other changes proving to be more detrimental. Nonetheless, the hotel persevered, well into early 1980s when the hotel reached a major turning point. “At that point, it was almost beyond restoring,” explained Fager, adding that the interior of the hotel was in complete disarray, leaving total demolition as a very real possibility. With local residents and business owners determined to see the hotel stay in operation, plans to restore the hotel started gaining traction. Ultimately, 10 families banded together to bring ideas of the hotel’s restoration to fruition. The investors were James and Nancy Barrett, Reese Cropper Jr., William and Anna Esham, William and Gloria Esham, Elizabeth Henry Hall, Clark and Jeanne Hamilton, Edward Hammond Jr., Richard and Cheryl Holland, Charles “Buddy” Jenkins, and William and Susan Mariner. “These were all good friends of mine,” said Fager, “and I almost got involved at that point in time.” $1.5 million was poured into the restoration, with little to any economic gain for the 10 investing families. The reward? Being able to watch a treasured landmark come back to life, thus providing a simultaneous shot of life to the town.
Fast forward to 2009, when the hotel endured another precarious setback. At that time, a new group of investors was in control of the hotel. While there is much speculation as to why the hotel was closed so suddenly in January of 2009, the fact remains that the town found themselves with a shuttered hotel with little hope for its future. “I watched that transition – after they left so suddenly and the hotel closed – and watching the hotel close and knowing what it meant to Berlin…it really bothered me,” said Fager. Fager’s wife, Michelle, shared in his frustrations, and it wasn’t long before they were seriously considering plans to restore the hotel to its original grandeur. The timing couldn’t have been better for Fager, as the slow season in Ocean City left him with an entire staff at Fager’s Island to call upon to help with the intensive restoration process. The first step was restoring the hotel to match its historical integrity. “We started to put things back together in an authentic way that would jive with the historical integrity,” said Fager. Bringing in turn of the century furniture, restoring the bar, refurbishing all of the rooms, and finding and re-hanging old artwork were just a few of the key pieces in the restoration. “It was great fun to do,” remembered Fager, “my wife and I just love the hotel.” Of course John and Michelle and their staff were not the only ones rolling up their sleeves and pitching in. “We were really blessed,” said Fager. “The town was SO supportive. Everyone was so thrilled to see the doors open again. The support and encouragement was really amazing.”
“Fast forward to five years later, and look at how much Berlin has changed,” continued Fager. “It’s like staying in a museum. It’s just an amazing story. It’s a real asset to the town and a real asset to the county as well.” Fager gave nod to all of the local Berlin businesses, as well as the town’s successful efforts in transforming the historic downtown area in recent years. “It’s an American story that a lot of towns would love to have.”
As the hotel celebrates its 120th year, several events are being planned, including a tapas and wine tasting event, to be held this Friday, January 30, from 5:30pm until 8pm in the ballroom. The event is set to pay homage to the 10 families that restored the hotel in the 1980s. “The evening will honor the 10 families and their vision and the risk that they took,” explained Fager. Tickets are $35 and will include eight different wines from France, Spain, Italy and Germany, to be paired with food inspired by all four of those countries. “All of that money will go back to the Town of Berlin to continue to help bring people to the town,” added Fager.
Also in the works for the anniversary celebration in 2015 is a Berlin heritage day, as well as a throwback menu in the dining room this summer, with classic dishes such as turtle soup.
As for us, we’ll continue to enjoy all that the hotel has to offer, from dining and events, to weddings and parties. We look forward to relaxing on the front porch when the weather gets nicer again, as well as celebrating the town during all of this year’s events. The Atlantic Hotel truly is the cornerstone of Downtown Berlin, and we couldn’t imagine having it any other way.