There’s a kind of after school feeling you get in buildings that have been closed for the season, or at least that I do. Not after school in the detention sense, quite the opposite. Maybe you were in a play or at a game and had occasion to be in one of the classrooms or hallways, not trespassing, but maybe on an errand. The feeling is one of alternate use, and it was a vibe that was present to me as I walked into the main office of the closed-for-the-season Commander Hotel.
People were working at their desks, but there were inverted chairs atop those that were disused and through the window I could see that Grotto’s Pizza, which lets out the restaurant at the hotel’s front, also was in hibernation mode. Among the vague chaos that was the administrative offices, three of the hotel executives chatted at what was the acting conference table. The Commander Hotel wasn’t just closed for the season, it was undergoing a renovation.
If you’ve ever had so much as a wall knocked out or a room painted, you know the upheaval that minor renovations cause. If you’ve ever undergone a major renovation let this act as your trigger warning: look away while you can. The Commander Hotel plans to renovate more than 100 rooms between now and April, the first aspect of which already was well underway when I visited them in mid-January. The conference table had a war room feel as people for whom winter was a time to recuperate from the summer directed the movements of dozens of workers and subcontractors.
General Manager Michael Hayes was finishing up a phone call. The Commander Hotel is one of three properties for which he is responsible, so he is a man in demand but he wasn’t frazzled in any way at all. In fact he seemed completely at ease with the responsibility of the project and laughed genuinely and regularly throughout the afternoon. Michael took his seat at the table and, with the help of Daina Behe who works for one of the partner companies, brought me up to speed on the arc and history of The Commander Hotel, starting with the new tagline: “A Celebration of Tradition”
Traditional Summers at the Commander Hotel
There was a time when the Commander Hotel was at the end of the boardwalk. When middle and upper-middle class families arrived in June and stayed through August. It was a time of firsts for the hotel, first telephone, elevator, indoor plumbing, etc. As new ways to be comfortable were invented, the Commander embraced them. As the 20th century wore on, more people came and stayed for shorter lengths of time. Vacations were a week rather than all summer and the Commander adjusted to this disposition.
Like the city itself, the hotel saw its highs and lows throughout the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, but recent developments have put the landmark hotel on a new track for the future. The Burbage company this winter invested in the hotel, helping fund not only a complete renovation but also an entirely new look. Nautical will be traded out for tropical and the hotel will reimagine what its guest expect aesthetically with a nod toward the Bethany Beach Ocean Suites. On the service end, little will change. As far as the rooms go, they still will have spectacular views of the ocean, but the insides will be a little more modern and a lot fresher.
We left the office and, as we did, the secluded vibe fell away and was replaced by a construction vibe. When I heard that the plan was to have the entire place renovated in a little more than two months I was skeptical, but watching the workers buzz between rooms and floors, slinging joint compound and hauling away debris I started to feel as if they might be done before I left.
Celebration of Tradition
Celebrating tradition rather than continuing it is an important but subtle difference, a way of recognizing the new design and attitude while honoring expectations of their regular guests, some of whom have been comping to the hotel for a generations. When they last remodeled in the late 1990s, the Commander Hotel dabbled with “theme rooms” in its famed Cabana building. This time out they’re shooting for something a little more subtle.
The Cabana’s rooms all are being converted to efficiencies with full kitchens. As we walked around the rooms, I was particularly taken with the balconies. Whether they overlook the pool or just provide great views of Ocean City scenes, for me balconies represent something particularly leisurely when it comes to vacations.
I will admit to enjoying the occasional cigar and the less-occasional evening cocktail. Hanging out on the balcony with my wife, chatting and drinking and taking in the night air is always a very specific way of relaxing. Similarly with fresh-brewed coffee in the morning. True, we enjoy our porch at home so maybe it’s just us, but since balcony rooms and rooms with decks tend to go at a premium, I feel like I’m probably in the majority.
The rooms all feature what I’m told will be a sunken living area. It was just a step down as we approached the sliding glass doors that provided access to the balcony. The idea is to provide a more concrete transition between the sleeping area and a place for hanging out and possibly entertaining.