Photo by Ed Gunts

First The Hippo, and now Grand Central.

Baltimore will lose its largest gay nightclub when new owners start converting Grand Central at 1001-1003 N. Charles Street to an office building with retail space at street level.

The nearly 15,000-square-foot club changed hands on Feb. 28, following former owner Don Davis’ decision to retire and move out of state. A purchase price was not disclosed.

Davis posted a note on Facebook stating that Grand Central’s sale was finalized on Feb. 28, but did not give many details. He later identified the buyers as Jon Pannoni and George Watson and referred questions to Marc Hayes, who has been serving as the club’s general manager while the property was under contract, and has continued to manage the club for the new owners.

Hayes released a statement from the new owners, a group called Landmark Partners LLC, saying the club will stay open until the new owners are ready to begin construction on their office project.

“Landmark Partners has assumed ownership of Grand Central at 1001-1003 N. Charles Street as of February 28, 2019 and will continue to operate the business with improvements through our new management team until the full development is set to commence,” the owners said in an “information release” dated Feb. 28.

The statement did not identify the buyers by name, but referred to them as a group that has worked in Mount Vernon before and understands the building’s significance. Landmark purchased the property through an entity called LP 1001 N Charles LLC.

According to its website, Landmark owns a shared working space development called City House in an early 20th century Greystone mansion at 6 E. Eager St., just east of Grand Central, and that is where its own offices are. It is working on a project called Guardian House at 21 S. Gay St.

“We recognize and appreciate the importance Grand Central has played in shaping the neighborhood and the community and intend to celebrate it through our planned project,” the developers said in their statement.

“We have been and will continue to work closely with the community to engage them in the process. We believe thoughtful investment into Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods in alignment with their communities is the key to continued growth for the city.”

The project does not have a name, and the partners have not disclosed a construction budget or timetable. SM+P Architects, the designer for the Hotel Revival and the latest addition to the Maryland Club, is the architect of record.

In their statement, the principals of Landmark did not say who will occupy the office and retail spaces or how much square footage there will be in all. They stressed that the commercial spaces are intended to activate the surrounding area and help make it safer.

“Both retail concepts are intended to be authentic Baltimore food and beverage establishments that are open to all,” the owners said. “Our intent is to activate and energize the corner for the community to enjoy, with the goal of enhancing walkability and vibrancy within the neighborhood and to increase safety. The retail concept that will occupy the current Grand Central Pub side on the corner of Charles and Eager will be a full service lunch/dinner/bar concept open later hours to maintain the liveliness of the corner.”

A representative for Baltimore’s liquor board said it’s received no information about the change in ownership of the property. According to records on file, the license is in good standing and not due to expire until April 30, 2019.

Grand Central began in 1991 as Central Station Pub, which occupied the corner building at 1001 N. Charles Street, across Eager Street from the Maryland Club. In 2003, Davis bought the Stagecoach nightclub at 1003 N. Charles Street, combined the two properties and renamed them Grand Central. Along with the Hippo, it was an anchor for Baltimore’s gayborhood and served as a backdrop for the annual Baltimore Pride Block Party and other events.

Davis said in late 2016 that his asking price for the property was $2.6 million. His price dropped to $1.85 million the following year, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Davis has declined requests for interviews about the sale, saying his lawyers advised him not to talk about it before settlement. But in the statement from the new owners, he said he supports their plans to close the business he started.

“I believe Landmark Partners’ plan for Grand Central is the right move to grow the neighborhood and build something great for the entire community that we all can enjoy,” Davis is quoted as saying.

“I was very selective about the team that I wanted to sell to, knowing whatever happened on this corner would be a critical part of this neighborhood’s future,” he added, “and after spending time with Landmark, seeing their stabilized and planned projects, I’m confident they’re the right fit.”

Davis has argued there is less of a market for gay bars and nightclubs nowadays, because gay people are now welcome in more places than before. In recent years, he has increasingly promoted Grand Central as an “alternative” club, rather than a gay club.

“The social climate has changed a lot since the 1980s,” he said in the statement from Landmark. “Everyone is welcome everywhere–the need for a specific gay establishment/bar is not as necessary any longer, and after an amazing 30 years, it’s time to turn the page.”

The sale comes three years after another large gay nightspot, Club Hippo, closed when longtime owner Chuck Bowers retired. It was replaced by a CVS drug store.

It also comes just as the Baltimore Eagle, a gay leather bar on Charles Street, is preparing to reopen under new management. On March 1, the bar’s new operators posted a teaser on Facebook saying, “We’re coming,” without giving a date.

Grand Central was open as usual this past weekend, with a large crowd late on Saturday night. The upstairs Loft bar area was closed, but Hayes said it will be open by next weekend. One change, he said, is that the Loft may be promoted as a place for higher-priced drinks and cigar smoking. One goal, he wrote on Facebook, is to draw bigger crowds to the club for Karaoke nights.

Other gay bars still open include Leon’s and the Drinkery in Mount Vernon and the Gallery in Station North.

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