To appreciate the Owl Bar, you have to understand some of it’s history.
The bar that we now know as the Owl Bar opened in December of 1903 off of the main lobby of the (very grand!) Belvedere Hotel which had opened earlier that year.
The Belvedere Hotel was named after the grand home and estate, Belvedere, of John Eager Howard which once existed near the site of the current hotel. (It was razed in 1874 – almost 30 years before the Belvedere Hotel opened)
John Eager Howard was a legendary Maryland figure who was governor of Maryland from 1788-1791 and later its US Senator from 1796 – 1803; near-by Howard County is named after him and Howard built a mansion home and estate, Waverly, for his eldest son which still exists west of Ellicott City.
This photo below shows the Hotel Belvedere bar from a time closer to its opening.
The wonderfully complex brickwork is still very much obvious in the room though the delightful happy gnomes that once sat on the rims of the chandeliers between the lights have sadly disappeared!
It’s not obvious when exactly it became known as the “Owl Bar” but it had acquired the name by the “Prohibition Era”. During prohibition (1920-1933), word has it that the Owl Bar took advantage of a huge hidden stash of alcohol in the basement of the Belvedere and offered it to regulars. There were two statues of Owls up by the bar and one story says that if the eyes of the owls blinked (yup, the owls were electrified!) then that was a sign that cops had entered the foyer of the Belvedere and that the regulars should quickly finished off their illegal booze! (Yet another story suggests that if the eyes were lit up, it was a sign to the regulars that they could ask the bartenders for some of the “good” stuff from the basement!)
Above and behind the bar, stained glass panels were added at some point which declare: “A wise old owl sat on an oak”, “The more he saw the less he spoke”, “The less he spoke the more he heard”. A standard fourth line ended the verse: “Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?” – but it isn’t clear whether there was ever a another panel above the bar with the 4th line). During World War II, the poem was part of posters distributed by the US government (Probably another variation of the US Government’s war time “Loose Lips Sink Ships” type efforts) and the connection with the prohibition era winking owls may have spurred the addition.
Today, you get to the Owl Bar by entering the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel. The Belvedere’s hotel rooms became condos in 1991 and its glamorous ball rooms and private dining rooms were thankfully retained and are now available for catered special events. Off in the left back corner of the lobby, you’ll see a hallway leading to the Owl bar which is full of legendary people who have stayed at the Belvedere Hotel (and maybe even had a drink in the Owl Bar)! You then enter a small ante room before entering the bar itself.
Finally, there you are in the Owl Bar!
And if you look around carefully, you’ll even spot an OWL! (but their eyes don’t blink any more!)
FACTS: The Owl Bar; Mt. Vernon; 1 E. Chase Street; 410.347.0888; http://www.theowlbar.com/ ; Full Bar; Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner; brunch on weekends; paid street parking or paid garages; no valet parking.