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Historic Atlantic Hotel celebrates 120th birthday

(Jan. 22, 2015) The Atlantic Hotel, the centerpiece of downtown Berlin, turns 120 years old this year and the families who joined to bring it back to life in the 1980s after years of neglect will be honored at a fundraiser at the hotel on Friday, Jan. 30.
 “We encourage everyone who loves Berlin and wants to see another year of successful economic progress to attend the tapas and wine tasting fundraising event,” said Angela Reynolds, the managing director for Fager’s Island, which operates the landmark. “All proceeds will go to the promotion of the Town of Berlin during 2015 in the name of the Atlantic Hotel investors.”
Wines and food from France, Spain, Italy and Germany will be featured. During the evening, appreciation certificates for visionary leadership will be presented to each of the 10 families involved in the restoration.
The Atlantic Hotel dates back to 1895, when a fire demolished the entire downtown of Berlin. The mayor and council at that time decided all new structures would be built of brick.
Horace and Virginia Harmonson felt Berlin needed an inn to accommodate the numerous traveling “drummers” who traveled throughout the region selling their wares.
The Atlantic Hotel, which also had a fine dining room, was built in the center of the community. Harmonson added a stable to the rear of the hotel, where horses and carriages could be rented. In addition, he had a horse-drawn bus that transported guests and picked them up at the train station. Families also were able to rent carriages to visit Ocean City’s beaches.
But by the 1960s and 1970s the Atlantic Hotel had lost its former glory. An addition built in front of the hotel in 1946 where a garden once stood was occupied by stores, while other portions the hotel were home to what was described as unsavory characters. Town officials even thought about tearing it down for a parking lot.
Meanwhile, the town itself was hardly flourishing and some members of the community believed that to save the town they had to save the hotel. In the spring of 1986, local businessman Jim Barrett talked to local attorney Ed Hammond about buying the dilapidated property. Both men, now deceased, had restored other buildings in the community.
After agreeing to take on the project, they contacted father and son businessmen William “Junior” Esham and Billy Esham, along with accountant Bill Mariner because of their known interest in Berlin.  
Mariner was asked to make an analysis for restoration and operation of the Atlantic Hotel. His conclusion was the hotel could not make it without repairs, but he was interested in becoming a partner.
Elizabeth Hall was one of the first investors, but she died before the restoration was complete.
Others liked the idea of Atlantic Hotel’s restoration and a partnership with 10 shares was formed. 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.
Reese Cropper, retired banker, was convinced into investing after listening to a sales pitch by Hammond and Barrett. The men told Cropper restoration of the hotel was a way to improve the town’s image, in addition to giving back to the community.
The partners left restoration and business details primarily to Hammond and Mariner throughout the process.
“I have never been a part of a partnership where everything worked,” Cropper recalled this week. “I think since we all knew we weren’t getting anything out of it, there was no disappointment. The project cost was double the amount we originally thought, but everyone came up with the money for its completion.”
Hammond and Mariner and their wives traveled for two years to find furniture for the hotel. It was important for the pieces to be accurate to Victorian times. They looked everywhere from old chicken houses to antique markets.
“We are all locals who grew up here and go back many generations. We all knew one another, went to school together and it was important to us,” Susan Mariner said. “It was a labor of love, Berlin is a small town and we are so proud of it.”
Billy Esham said he decided to invest because his father asked him to contribute. He lived in Berlin and had watched the area deteriorate throughout the years.
“Truthfully, in my heart I knew it was not a good investment, but teaming up to restore the hotel was one of my proudest moments,” Esham said. “It was an act of love for all 10 partners.”
The partnership contacted two local banks, Peninsula Bank and Calvin B. Taylor, asking for a loan of $1 million. By all accounts, the bank boards had trouble figuring out why 10 successful business people were applying for a loan to lose money, but soon realized the significance and agreed to make the loan.
A local contractor, Larry Widgeon, was hired to complete the restoration and close to $1.5 million later, the hotel opened in late summer of 1988. The restored hotel was an instant success, albeit of no economic benefit to the partners. But what it did do was spark a resurgence of economic activity throughout the downtown.
Major motion pictures “Runaway Bride” and “Tuck Everlasting” were both shot at the Atlantic Hotel.
In 2009, John Fager, owner of Fager’s Island restaurant in Ocean City along with a pair of boutique hotels, The Edge and the Lighthouse Club, leased the Atlantic Hotel from the partners.
He provided further upgrades by adding new antiques to the rooms, replaced the aging linens, rearranging the rooms and building on the Victorian feel. In addition, he turned the fine dining area into a ballroom for meetings or parties. He wanted the hotel to closely resemble its original look in 1895.
Currently, the hotel has 17 rooms with period furniture, plush bedding and Italian linens. The historic Drummer’s Café has served the community lunch and dinner for more than 100 years.
Since Budget Travel named Berlin “America’s Coolest Small Town” last summer, the proceeds from this fundraiser will be given to the Town of Berlin to continue the ongoing celebration.
“This event is honoring the original 10 investors who were responsible for the total restoration of the hotel as well as providing a new beginning for Berlin,” Reynolds said.
The party will be held in the Atlantic Hotel Ballroom on Friday, Jan. 30 from 5:30-8 p.m. and tickets cost $35 per person. They can be purchased at the hotel or at the Berlin Chamber of Commerce. To purchase tickets, call the Atlantic Hotel at 410-641-3589.
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