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A Low-Key Legacy

After the posh Ivy Hotel, Marty Azola is passing the baton.

When complete, hopefully in early 2015, the Mt. Vernon hotel formerly known as The Inn at Government House will open as The Ivy Hotel, a boutique hotel with service, amenities, and ambiance unparalleled in the city. With just 18 rooms, each with its own fireplace, The Ivy will be an intimate setting, promising a sumptuous experience even The Four Seasons can’t match. The restaurant will be open to the public, but the spa and outdoor garden will be exclusively for guests. And the average room rate? Seven-hundred dollars a night. But the brains behind the project is not a name as recognizable as Marriott or Hilton.

The minority co-owner, developer, and general contractor of the $18-million project is Azola Companies, a family-run, local business with four decades of experience in adaptive reuse—re-engineering old buildings for new purposes while retaining their historic personalities. Over the years, Martin “Marty” Azola, an engineer in a past life, has stayed largely under the radar, quietly leaving his mark on some of Baltimore’s most notable preservation projects: Rockland Grist Mill and historic village, the Bromo Seltzer Tower, and the building that currently houses The Oregon Grille restaurant, to mention a few. 

Of Azola’s many projects, perhaps the most fortuitous was the 1998 renovation of the corporate headquarters of Brown Capital Management at 1201 N. Calvert St., a massive brownstone that, a century ago, was an elegant home in what was then a fashionable neighborhood.

“Of all the goofy zigs and zags in my jaded history, that particular phone call may have been a turning point in my life,” says Azola, who lives in Roland Park in a DIY, 1885 converted dairy barn that was featured in two local shelter magazines. 

“People who come into 1201 N. Calvert are just blown away by the attention to historic detail that was maintained,” says Eddie Brown, chairman, CEO, and founder of Brown Capital Management. Brown’s firm has about $7 billion in investments—mostly pension funds—under management, but he may be best known for the tens of millions of dollars he and his wife, Sylvia, have donated to arts and education programs and nonprofits. Brown recalls how the Azola family wanted to ensure that necessary upgrades, like modern HVAC, didn’t damage the integrity of the building, and how they spent months planning the restoration at his century-old townhouse-turned-headquarters before anyone picked up a hammer. “Their work is painstaking,” says Brown.

The Brown family and Azola have now worked together on six projects including The Ivy, which is located across the street from Brown’s office. That long history is due in part to Marty Azola’s extensive knowledge of not only construction, but also historic tax credits, which saves hundreds of thousands of dollars on a project. “With them, we have it all: expertise, integrity and terrific people,” Brown says of the Azola family, all of whom work for the business, including 39-year-old son, Anthony “Tony” Azola, who’s being groomed to take over the company; daughter Kirsten, who does design work; and wife Lone, who left a career in real estate to help run the company’s operations. 

A young-looking, fit, 67-year-old with a thick head of gray hair, Azola is an affable character who loves a good joke and a glass or two of good wine. (For years, he made his own Chateaux Azola in the stone pump house in his backyard, grew his own grapes behind the barn, and was winner of the 2010 Highlandtown Wine Festival.) He’s also gifted at weaving a tale, like the one about how, during his stint as vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, he personally built the Pimlico finish line marker in his own backyard. He’s willing to laugh at his foibles, even in business. He jokes that wife Lone “refuses to let me near the checkbook, and that’s probably for the best.” 

There are other peculiarities of an all-family business, of course, including occasional differences of opinion on workplace solutions. “It has its moments, good and bad,” says Azola. “But despite the pressure and the occasional disagreement, everyone in the family has fallen into loving what we do, and we do this as well or better than anyone I know. It’s not primarily about the money—it’s about what I call ‘a glow from within’ when a project is done, a sense of self-satisfaction.”

So why is he preparing to hand over the reins of the business to son Tony? One impetus was a tragic turn of events three years ago that prompted Azola to rethink his life and work. That was when Azola’s younger son, Mat, 34, who had 15 years of experience in historic preservation under his father’s tutelage, died suddenly in California from complications caused by a bite from a black widow spider. 

“I had no idea how the sadness would play out over the years,” says Azola. “I asked around with people who had lost a child, and they told me it’s like the movie Groundhog Day. They said it does not get better. They were never really happy again. And sure enough, it’s true.”

“Of course, we have many blessings with Kirsten working with us and Tony doing really well, and we have a grandchild now thanks to Tony and our daughter-in-law Alba. And it’s good, maybe, that the stresses of the job have kept me so busy, because I can’t think about Mat until I come home and see his picture at night. But it took the wind out of our sails.

“Tony gets it, likes the work, and will do just fine taking over completely after The Ivy is done,” Azola says. And Mat’s loss makes the gradual transition of the business to Tony a more obvious solution. “I guess it would have been more complicated with two brothers—the sadness made it easier,” he says.

As Azola plots his semi-retirement after The Ivy is up and running smoothly, Tony promises to bring a fresh perspective to a company that has specialized in historic preservation.

The changing of the guard comes at a time when adaptive reuse itself is getting a makeover. Attitudes are changing about historic structures, and the definition of an “old” building is getting younger. That’s because many of the glamorous projects have been renovated and now the mid-century structures are the ones in need of TLC. 

“Adaptive reuse is the buzz word now,” says Tony, who earned a master’s in environmental science from Virginia Tech and dabbled in everything from professional cycle racing in Europe to software sales before joining his dad’s business. “But the buildings don’t need to be old mansions. An old building now is from the 1960s, even the ’70s.” 

When it opens, The Ivy Hotel will be adaptive reuse for a new generation. On the first floor, the high-ceilinged rooms have been preserved with original hand-carved paneling, stained-glass windows, and elegant fireplaces, and will be used for a breakfast room, music room, tea room, and library. Afternoon tea and evening cocktails will be served daily.

With an assist from Ziger/Snead Architects, the five-story structure will have nine rooms and nine suites, none of which will adhere slavishly to period décor. Though the experience will be like staying in the magnificent family home this once was, the interior designer, Joszi Meskan, reportedly said the mandate for The Ivy was that it “could not look like Grandma’s house” when it was complete. Built in the late 1800s, the bones of the building will provide a historic backdrop from which a modern, luxury hotel experience will be drawn. 

Garrett Hotel Consultants (GHC), specialists in boutique luxury properties, have been brought in to provide expertise. GHC is known for its other impressive destinations like Lake Placid Lodge and The Point in the Adirondacks, which are both consistently ranked among the best hotels in America by Vogue, Forbes, and others. They boast over-the-top touches like a complimentary $150 bottle of wine in the room, no tipping, Kiehl’s soaps and lotions in the bathrooms, and even a camera at the front desk that photographs new guests and lists their first names so staffers, from waiters to bellhops, address you personally in the first minute of your visit. 

To be competitive, David Garrett, GHC’s chairman and CEO, says the team knew they needed to create something extraordinary at The Ivy—and charge a premium for it. “We’re shooting for what’s known as Forbes five-star level,” says Garrett. “That’s the highest level of service, cuisine, and ambiance. We’re also shooting for membership in Relais & Châteaux,” one of the most prestigious designations a hotel can earn.

Garrett has already imported part of his winning equation to Baltimore: British-born chef Mark Levy, formerly of The Point, has been tapped as executive chef for The Ivy’s restaurant, Magdalena. And no expense is being spared to make chef Levy’s domain one-of-a-kind: The state-of-the-art kitchen is being constructed around a massive, custom-built Moltoni stove from France. 

But hold your horses, there: What makes Azola and Brown think humble Baltimore can sustain such a pricey boutique hotel? The answer, says Azola, lies in Charm City’s historic inferiority complex.

“The truth is, we’re not the little Baltimore that we natives think,” he says. “Marketing people we’re working with from New York and San Diego, the interior designer from San Francisco, the accountant from Texas, and the new hotel manager from Massachusetts all think we have a sleeper here, a town with a lot of unmet potential. As far as the price and testing that potential, the folks at Four Seasons really set the stage, and they’ve been successful, and our price points are very similar. Not everyone prefers a big hotel, so we believe there’s a need for a boutique hotel of equal or better caliber.” 

Even with a highly visible project that could win Azola overdue attention, his company will likely maintain its low profile, even as Tony takes on more responsibility. While both Azolas will remain active in the business, says Marty, “It’s passing the baton while we’re both running full speed.” 

“Cities are always changing, but we need to make sure we don’t erase the past, as it is a road map to the future,” adds Tony. “This turnover ensures that our style of construction and saving buildings will move forward into the future.”

Of course, Dad is quick to chime in that rumors of him immediately vanishing from the company scene  are exaggerated. “I’m not going anywhere right away,” says Marty Azola. “Eddie’s got three more projects for us.”

Making Their Mark
The Azola Companies’ projects can be seen all over town

The Mercantile Bank Building (1969): Rehabbed on Hopkins Plaza
Railway Express Lofts (2008): Converted old post office to apartments and office space
Rockland Grist Mill & Village (1979-1980): Now offices and homes Old Towson Jail (2010): Now Bosley Hall offices
Devon Hill (1984): Historic mansion and condos Bromo Seltzer Tower (2007): Interior restoration
Oregon General Store (1985): Now The Oregon Grille Maryland Building at the Zoo (2010): Complete restoration
Mt. Vernon row house (1999): Now Brown Capital Mgt. offices Steel fabrication warehouse (2014): Converted to Volunteers of America Residential