After remaining closed since mid-March due to the COVID crisis, The Ivy Hotel and its onsite restaurant Magdalena are finally set to reopen. The Ivy, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, will tentatively open on Oct. 1, while the onsite restaurant—which is getting a rebrand as Magdalena, a Maryland Bistro—is scheduled to reopen by Oct. 9.
To mark the reopening, we caught up with the hotel’s partners Eddie Brown, the CEO and founder of Brown Capital Management, and Sylvia Brown, his wife of 58 years, from their home in Maine to talk about the restaurant’s rebrand, their extensive philanthropy, and growing up in the segregated South.
Why did you want to open The Ivy in the first place?
Eddie Brown: We both love historic buildings. My office is on the same side of the street right across from what’s now The Ivy—and that’s a historic building, built in 1889. I was looking across from my window at what was then a completely different building that was almost vacant. I saw the opportunity to purchase another gorgeous property that could be painstakingly renovated as we had done at 1201 North Calvert Street. We could keep the first level with all of that historic detail and have it for weddings and public events, and then I could carve out maybe six or seven of the adjacent properties that were interconnected for some additional office space—that was the original intent. The idea evolved into it becoming a luxury hotel—in fact, the only Relais & Châteaux in the state.
I understand that you are rebranding Magdalena, and even giving it a new name, Magdalena, a Maryland Bistro. Can you tell me more?
EB: This was a major re-conceptualization of the restaurant. Magdalena was fine-dining. We were basically sourcing about 75 percent nationally and internationally and 25 percent locally for the restaurant. [We thought] let’s flip that to be a French bistro concept and still keep the quality and everything Chef Mark [Levy] has been so good at, but let’s change the concept—not just the food, but also the atmosphere. We are changing some of the décor, so it will feel much more casual. The food will still be very high-quality and well-prepared, but with more of an emphasis on Maryland.
Sylvia Brown: The focus at Magdalena will be on the region, not only Baltimore but around the area and up to Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as Virginia.
I know that you eat at Magdalena a fair amount and I’m sure you’re looking forward to the reopening. How often are you there and what do you like to eat?
EB: We try to eat there once a week when we are in town because we are the owners and we like to greet both hotel and restaurant guests wherever they are from. We are not absentee owners.
SB: Anything that Mark prepares blows me away. I love his fish dishes, and his lamb dishes are just wonderful.
EB: Sylvia and I have similar palates. After 58 years, maybe it just happens that way.
Switching subjects, Mr. Brown, I’d love to hear a bit about your incredible backstory. I know that you grew up in Apopka, Florida, where your family members worked in the citrus groves.
EB: My mother was only 13 when she had me. I’m an only child, and I was really reared by my grandparents. My mother left home when she was 15. The very short version of my story is that I grew up during the time of segregation—and so did Sylvia. And they still have the railroad tracks that separated the Black section of Apopka from the white section. I was poor. We didn’t have running water. We didn’t have indoor plumbing. We didn’t have electricity. Growing up, in my school years, I had a kerosene lamp to read and study by. It was just like a third-world country growing up in that environment, but we were happy. We didn’t know any different—this was life.
“We try to eat at Magdalena once a week when we are in town because we like to greet both hotel and restaurant guests, wherever they are from. We are not absentee owners.” —Eddie Brown
What was it like growing up during times of segregation?
EB: Until I left to move with my mother to Allentown, Pennsylvania, I had never known anything during those first 14 years of my life except for segregation. And a Black person didn’t dare go across those railroad tracks after dark—that was a no-no. It was separate, but not equal. And I never had any exposure to professionals beyond teachers and preachers in my early years, until I moved to the Pennsylvania.
I’ve read that you were one of just a handful of Black students at your high school in Allentown. How did that impact you?
EB: In my graduating class in Allentown, which was the only high school at the time, there were seven Blacks in a school of about 756 students. Of those seven Black students, only three of us were in college prep in my graduating class. The reason that is significant is that I had the vision of wanting a good education and going to college from a young age, but I had a hard time coming to Allentown from Apopka. When you’re Black and from the South, the first thing that happens is that you are put back a grade. If you were male, it was suggested that you go into industrial arts. If you were a Black female, it was suggested that you go into home economics. I knew I wanted to go to college, so my mother, who had only a seventh -or eighth-grade education herself, pushed the system. She knew enough to know that I if I was in industrial arts, I would not have a shot at being accepted to a decent college.
There’s a fairly well-known story that you had an anonymous benefactor who sent you to college. Can you talk about that?
EB: There was still a Black section in Allentown at the time. There was a community organizer, a man who looked out for Blacks with aspirations, and he had met this lady who wanted to provide a scholarship for a Black student to go to college. I hit the jackpot because the other two college prep Blacks in my graduating class were from middle-class families—and I didn’t have anything. I had no financial means to go to college. He met with me and my mother and he said, “I’m going to recommend you because you have the need and the desire to go to college.” This lady sent $1000 each year to the registrar’s office [at Howard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering]. Tuition was $104 or $106 dollars per semester, so that $1000 each year paid for room and board, and I had a little money left over.
Did you ever meet your benefactor?
EB: I didn’t have enough sense to seek the lady out at that time. But as an adult and a college graduate, I did have enough sense to try to find her. The only thing I knew was that the family owned a casket company. And when I tried to find her, there was no casket company in Allentown, so I guess they went out of business or something. I was never able to trace the benefactor. That’s one of the regrets of my life.
What was Mrs. Brown’s childhood like?
EB: Sylvia was from the opposite side of the tracks. My grandparents were common laborers in the fields, and that’s why I had this vision that I didn’t want to do that out in the hot sun. On Sylvia’s side, her father was the principal of a high school and her mother was a teacher in the high school. All of her siblings were college graduates. I’m really fortunate that they let her marry me.
“When you’re Black and from the South, the first thing that happens is that you are put back a grade. If you were male, it was suggested that you go into industrial arts. I knew I wanted to go to college, so my mother pushed the system. She knew enough to know that I if I was in industrial arts, I would not have a shot at being accepted to a decent college.” —Eddie Brown
What else do you recall of those days?
EB: There’s one other story I’d like to share. I was invited by the The Apopka Chief, the newspaper in Florida to be the keynote speaker at the dinner honoring the late John Land, who was one of the longest-serving mayors of any city in the U.S. He was the mayor of Apopka for 61 years, and they have this community fund named in his honor. This was the second year they were holding this gala for community projects for the benefit of the city. They had 130 people attend the previous year, and they had like 250 people who wanted to come [when I was speaking], so they had to have it at another location [to accommodate everyone.] That facility was located right at the railroad tracks on what was the white section, where I couldn’t cross as a kid.
So, having that backstory, I imagine you must have a lot to say about the Black Lives Matter movement.
EB: The Ivy and Magdalena basically embodies what is at Brown Capital Management right across the street—and that has been from day one. We are committed to having a diverse staff at all levels. It’s something that’s just in our DNA, something that we really believe in. In July, I wrote a Washington Post op-ed. We said, “This time is different…we have to speak out. We cannot remain silent.” That op-ed received more national attention than anything we’ve ever done in the past 37 years.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is making people more aware of what has happened and not shoving it under the rug. Of course, a lot of people just aren’t aware of the history. Making people aware is crucial.” —Sylvia Brown
SB: This is a very momentous time. A lot of the systematic racism has been brought to light by the deaths of Blacks like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others this summer by white policemen. It just makes no sense why they were dying, and they still are. It’s a very important time to make people aware of the many disservices and consequences of African Americans, so we strongly support the movement. It’s making people more aware of what has happened and not shoving it under the rug. Of course, a lot of people just aren’t aware of the history. Making people aware is crucial, and hopefully some changes will be made.
Not everyone who is successful believes in philanthropy. But the two of you certainly do. Can you talk about why?
SB: We’ve been so blessed in so many ways.
EB: There was a pastor at our former church many years ago who said something that stuck with us and that we both believe in very strongly, and that is that those who are blessed should be a blessing to others, especially to those less fortunate. It’s just in our DNA to help. We decided to focus on three areas—health, education, and the arts.
Why are the arts, in particular, so important to you?
EB: Not just the arts but art by African-American artists. Our older daughter is artist Tonya Ingersoll, and she is really accomplished. She got her MFA at a little institution up the road called MICA—and her attending MICA cost us $6 million dollars! [for the stunning Brown Center building on Mt. Royal Avenue.]
As people who have done so much for the city, how do you see small businesses, restaurants in particular, recovering from the pandemic?
EB: It’s a very tough environment and, unfortunately, some won’t be able to make it. I think the state and federal governments should continue to provide help and stimulus during this very unprecedented time. What we did with The Ivy and Magdalena was we decided to close and use this time to do maintenance, like replace the HVAC system. It’s a historic property, and there’s always something to do. We retained all of the salaried employees on the payroll. We really care about the staff and we wanted to keep this talented team that we painstakingly assembled.