Photo by Ed Gunts.

For sale: 38-bed hostel. Prime downtown location. Lots of memories.

After serving thousands of budget-conscious travelers over the past four decades, one of Baltimore’s most affordable lodging options has closed its doors permanently and is now for sale for $675,000.

The HI Baltimore Hostel at 17 W. Mulberry St., served its last customers on Oct. 19 and is being shown to prospective buyers.

According to its owner, the Baltimore hostel had four dorm-style rooms with bunk beds (two rooms for females, one for males and one coed), and one private room, 38 beds in all. The average daily rate during the last year of operation was $24 in a dorm room and $65 in the private room, with a two-week maximum. That’s a fraction of the cost of an overnight stay at a downtown hotel

The nonprofit hostel also welcomed locals for social gatherings, concerts, art exhibits, movie and game nights, poetry readings and other cultural events in a spacious brownstone between Mount Vernon and Charles Center.

Before the building closed, the managers posted an announcement on Facebook.

“We have loved being part of the Baltimore community and appreciate all the support from our guests, friends, volunteers and donors over the years,” they said in part. “Thank you for the great times and memories!”

A dorm in the hostel. Courtesy: HI USA.

“The travelers loved it. The employees loved it. Everybody loved it,” said James Lane, who was the hostel’s community engagement coordinator until last month, a position he called “the best job in the city.”

Lane said he believes there are many tourists who wouldn’t have come to Baltimore over the years if the hostel hadn’t been there, because it was well-located and so affordable. He said it was attraction for area residents as well as travelers because of its many free activities.

Although it got some write-ups in local publications, including one front page article in The Daily Record, many people in town weren’t aware of how much it offered, Lane said.

“We were a huge asset to the city of Baltimore,” he said. “Unfortunately, we were an unsung hero.”

The Mulberry Street building is owned by Hostelling International USA, (HI USA), a nonprofit group based in Silver Spring, Maryland. HI USA has a network of about 50 hostels around the country, including about 35 that it owns and others that are franchises. It’s affiliated with another group that has 3,500 hostels around the world.

According to Netanya Trimboli, public relations and communications manager for HI USA, the board decided to close Baltimore’s hostel primarily because of maintenance issues.

“We unfortunately had to close HI Baltimore because it was not financially feasible for our organization,” she said in an email message. “The building needed a lot of maintenance that was above our capacity.”

Trimboli added that HI USA will not be looking for another location in Baltimore to operate a hostel.

“While we love the heart and soul of Baltimore, it historically has not been a strong destination choice for our international community of travelers, so we are currently not pursuing alternative locations within the city,” she said.

The building is being marketed by Brooks Healy, senior advisor with Harbor Stone Advisors in Baltimore, but it has not been listed.

According to Healy, Trimboli and Aaron Chaffee, HI USA’s vice president of Hostel Development, the nonprofit is offering the building in a two-step process that is designed to give “like-minded nonprofits” the first chance to buy it.

It is being offered privately to nonprofits until around Jan. 15, Chaffee said. If there is no acceptable contract on the building from a nonprofit by then, he said, the building will be offered more widely. The price of $675,000 is for both nonprofits and others, he added.

With three stories and a basement, the building is part of a row of large townhouses just south of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

A lounge for guests in the hostel. Courtesy: HI USA.

According to Harbor Stone Advisors, the building dates to around 1900 and contains 7,408 gross square feet on a 4,575-square-foot lot. Other buildings on the block range from the studio and residence of artist Pat Alexander to the offices of Gant Brunett Architects to the Fortune Teller (“psychic, reader and advisor”) on the corner.

The interior has tall ceilings, stone fireplace mantels, pier mirrors, parquet floors and many other original details. It also has Baltimore-centric artwork, including wall graphics that feature McCormick spices, crabs, the Orioles, Edgar Allan Poe and Billie Holiday, plus eight parking spaces in the rear.

Constructed as a private residence, the building has been a hostel twice since the 1980s. It was a hostel in the 1980s, then it was turned into apartments, and then it was turned back into a hostel in 2006.

Before Hostelling International, the building was run by a group called the Potomac Area Council of the American Youth Hostels Inc. and went by the name Baltimore International Youth Hostel. The word “youth” was eventually dropped because the hostel took in visitors of all ages. HI USA became the owner when it merged with the Potomac Area Council in 2013.

According to Chaffee, much of the work that’s needed is preservation-related, such as repairs to the brownstone façade. Chaffee said it’s rare that HI USA decides to divest of a location but directors weren’t able to figure out a way to maintain the brownstone. HI USA also decided this year to close its hostel near Harpers Ferry, another former Potomac Area Council property.

Caitlin Audette, a planner for Baltimore’s preservation commission, said the building is not a city landmark or part of a local historic district, but it is in the “North Charles Special District,” a part of the Central Business District that has certain preservation requirements and controls

Healy said the building is zoned for commercial use and could be recycled as offices, market-rate residences, low-income or transitional housing, or another lodging facility. He has started to show the building but has not received any offers yet.

Lane said he was sorry to see it close. He said it was very busy in the summer and less so in the winter. He tried to schedule a wide range of activities that would appeal to guests and area residents. “We were very community-driven,” he said.

Also unhappy about the closing is Frank Pratka, who was part of the group that helped reopen it as a hostel in 2006 and worked there until 2016. He said he remembers getting the Hilgartner Natural Stone Company to reassemble the dining room fireplace, which was in “100 pieces lying in a box” when he found it. “The main floor was all original,” he said.

Like Lane, Pratka said he thought the hostel was one of the bright spots in Baltimore.

“It makes me very sad,” he said. “Baltimore has a bad enough reputation as it is. This hostel was a place that gave out-of-town people a chance to see that Baltimore is a pretty cool town.”

Even though hostels are typically associated with young travelers, Pratka said Baltimore’s hostel attracted people of all ages. He said many came from Europe, China, Japan, Russia, even Australia and New Zealand. “They were always our favorites,” he said of the Aussies and Kiwis, “because they were fun and had great stories.”

Pratka said many of the international visitors started in Boston and worked their way down to Washington by bus or train, stopping in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, “thinking they were seeing the whole country.”

Foreign visitors who stop in Baltimore, he said, typically “know about Edgar Allan Poe and John Waters and the Walters Art Museum and the Cone Collection” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “That’s what they come to see.”

They also want crabs, he said, so he would send them to Faidley’s Seafood at Lexington Market. And for travelers who had heard about a holiday called Thanksgiving but never experienced it, he prepared Thanksgiving dinner.

Baltimore-themed murals in the basement. Courtesy: HI USA.

Pratka said the hostel also got its share of Americans who came to town for a convention but didn’t want to pay close to $200 a night for a downtown hotel room. Pratka said he met many travelers who could have afforded more luxurious accommodations but wanted to save money and were willing to share space with others.

“We got all kinds of people,” he said. “That’s what I liked about working there. You can’t assume what anybody does or is. We had doctors. We had lots of academic types. We had someone who looked like a housewife but she was a truck driver. They all understood what it was about. You have to like mingling with the other guests, and you can’t be too picky.”

Pratka said he was surprised by the price of $675,000. He attributed that to the building’s need for some renovation and the fact that it’s on a busy street. He noted that a car jumped the curb and hit the brownstone steps earlier this year.

“In any other city, it would be $1,675,000,” he said of the price. “The Enoch Pratt Free Library is across the street. Lexington Market is nearby. It would take some work, but I’m thinking some developer is going to turn it into condominiums. It’s too bad it’s on a highway. And you have to deal with the church bells, which are always going off. But otherwise, it’s a wonderful location.”

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

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