801 N. Charles St. Photo credit: Alex Cooper Auctioneers.

A Mount Vernon landmark with a colorful history appears destined for a new use, after several years of dormancy and a recent sale.

In the 1990s, 801 North Charles Street was the home of Tony Cheng’s Szechuan, a cornerstone of the restaurateur’s D.C.-Baltimore empire and one of the best Chinese dining spots in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, it housed the Chambord and Uncle Charlie’s Bistro, owned by car dealer Harry Gladding. Before that, it was the University Club, a haven for Johns Hopkins University faculty members.

According to Alex Cooper Auctioneers, the building was sold in an online auction on December 4 for $1,018,500, a figure that includes a buyer’s premium. Company vice president Paul Cooper said the actual bid price was $970,000.

“There was a lot of interest,” Cooper said. “We had a tremendous number of showings.”

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That’s what many of the prospective buyers wanted to know during the pre-auction tours, Cooper said. “People were asking: What can I do with it?”

The building is the latest of several high-profile properties in Mount Vernon to change hands or go under contract. The former Grand Central nightclub at Charles and Eager streets sold for $1.4 million in February of 2019. The former Elephant restaurant at 924 N. Charles Street sold later in 2019. Sascha’s Café at 527 North Charles sold in 2017, and nothing has opened in its place. A rowhouse in the unit block of East Eager Street sold for $970,000 this fall. Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church is reportedly under contract for about $1 million.

The seller of 801 North Charles Street was Charles & Madison LLC from Arlington, Virginia. Cooper said the auction was a voluntary sale and bidding started at $500,000.  He declined to disclose the buyer’s identity, saying the property hasn’t settled yet. Because the auction wasn’t held on the premises, it wasn’t possible to look around at a crowd and spot who placed the winning bid.

Constructed as a residence in the 1800s, the corner building stands one block north of Mount Vernon Place and is currently zoned for commercial use. With three stories plus a basement, it’s twice as wide as other buildings on the block. It measures 50 feet wide and 97 feet deep, with 19,400 square feet of space in all, including much of its original detail. No liquor license came with it. Because it’s in a local historic district, any plans to tear it down, or partially raze it as the buyers of Grand Central are doing with that property, would have to be approved by the city’s preservation commission.

For much of the last century, the building housed the private University Club, a magnet for Hopkins professors and others until it closed in 1974. The building’s life as a restaurant began in 1977, when it was acquired by Harry Gladding, founder of Gladding Chevrolet in Glen Burnie. Gladding, who lived at 1 West Mount Vernon Place starting in the 1960s, converted it to a French restaurant called the Chambord, with a separate lower-level bistro that had an entrance at 2 E. Madison Street.  Because he inherited a lot of chinaware with U and C on it, Gladding named the lower-level restaurant Uncle Charlie’s Bistro.

The story was that Gladding wanted a business where he would lose money, so he could have a tax write-off to balance his profitable car dealership, and he invested heavily in fixing up the building at 801. But the Chambord and the Bistro turned out to be hits, filling a need for both fine and casual dining in the years before Harborplace opened on the waterfront. The Bistro had a large gay following, paving the way for the Washington Place Grill, City Café and other gay-friendly spots along the Charles Street corridor.

Gladding died in 1989, and the Chambord and the Bistro closed several years before that. The building found new life as the home of Tony Cheng’s, an upscale Chinese restaurant where patrons weren’t allowed to wear jeans. Cheng and Associates sold the building in 2001 for $800,000 to Great Fortune Investment, led by Leung Lo, owner of the Great Fortune and Jade Garden restaurants in Baltimore County. Great Fortune sold it in 2005 to Charles and Madison LLC for $1.995 million, according to state records.

The last restaurant at 801 was Indigma, a Modern Indian restaurant that moved there after a five-alarm fire destroyed its home in the former Abell Mansion across the street in 2010. Indigma has since relocated to 900 Cathedral Street, and 801 has been undergoing exterior and interior renovations. Cooper said the sale to the new owner is expected to be final in about a month.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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