October 30, 2014

The Owl Bar in Baltimore, Maryland

Owl Bar owl statue and window

photo by: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

The nursery rhyme above the bar is a clue into the speakeasy past of Baltimore’s Owl Bar.

A wise old owl sat in an oak / the more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard / why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

First-time visitors to the Owl Bar may be amused by the appearance of a nursery rhyme embedded in stained glass above the antique backbar at Baltimore’s landmark Belvedere Hotel. More than a quaint decoration, however, the rhyming couplet is actually a nod to the Prohibition-era legacy that the bar’s feathered mascots played a major part in.

Built in 1903, the Belvedere was the city’s first luxury hotel, putting Baltimore on the map as a place where well-heeled travelers -- from presidents to royalty -- could rest and relax in a manner befitting their status. Crafted in the popular Beaux-Arts style, the hotel was quite the gathering spot with no place more cozy than the dark paneled Owl Bar tucked away off of the main lobby.

Owl Bar Belvedere Hotel sign

photo by: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

Originally known simply as the Bar Room (later the Falstaff Room), the space today retains many of its 100+-year-old features, from the finely carved wood entryway and antique chandeliers to the murals depicting maidens passing frothing steins of beer to swashbucklers below.

Owl Bar interior entrance

photo by: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

Hand-carved Gothic-inspired latticework marks the entrance to the bar room.

The tavern room with its decorative brickwork, leaded glass windows, and terracotta tiled floor still retains the feel of the historic era when the wise old owls roosting above the bar kept their beaks closed but their eyes opened, much to the delight of patrons wanting to wet their own beaks.

The Owls were placed atop the cash registers ostensibly as decor. During Prohibition, however, those “in the know” would gaze at their glowing glass eyes for coded messages indicating when illicit liquor was available for imbibing.

Nary a word was spoken openly, but when a secret stash of sauce was delivered and it was safe to share, the Owls’ eyes blinked. If the shipment had not arrived or the coast was not clear, the Owls’ eyes remained steadily glowing.

Owl Bar murals

photo by: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

Those with keen eyes will spot an owl tucked away in the eaves above the muraled entryway.

Once Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the Owls (named Sherry Belle and John Eager Howard) flew the coop too. One theory is they were taken as a souvenir by a reveler carried away by the spirit of the ban on booze being lifted.

Then the hotel fell on hard times in the early 1970s. Though used for a while as student housing, it later closed altogether -- which meant, presumably, that the Owls had vanished for good, too.

Owl Bar chandeliers

photo by: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

The chandeliers hanging above modern-day revelers are original to the 1903 opening of the hotel. Owl John Eager Howard, named after a Maryland governor, keeps a watchful eye from his roost above the bar.

When the property was purchased and reopened in 1976, a great search for the beloved Owls commenced. It was thought that they were lost to history until one fateful night when they returned again. True to their nature, they never spoke a word, but this mysterious poem found alongside them lends an eerie edge to the possibilities:

Where we’ve been, what we’ve seen
No matter the din, no one will glean

But if your eyes are clear today you can tell
The Owls of Belvedere -- have returned from Hell!

Today the Owls have been returned as permanent fixtures, overseeing their Owl Bar kingdom from a perch high above the grabbing hands of exuberant patrons. If you look closely you’ll see their eyes flash, just as they did in days of yore. But this time it’s a wink, knowing there are classic cocktails being poured -- legally -- under their watch.

Location: One East Chase Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. - 12:00 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 a.m.; Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m.

What to Order: Try one of their signature cocktails, like the Owl Shandy or Bufala' Negra.

Best Yelp Review: "The bartenders at the Owl Bar are the real reason I am a fan. They always know how to make a Manhattan and I can count on them to be right there when I need them."

Join us for PastForward Online 2020, the historic preservation event of the year, October 27-30, 2020.

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