Rooms with a View
Storied Past Meets Different Future At Visitation Hotel, Condominiums
By Colin McGuire Photography by Turner Photography Studio
As Jim O’Hare climbs up a seemingly never–ending flight of stairs in the former Visitation Academy building, the temperature cools (at least 10 degrees, if you ask him), the hallways get narrower (a product of 19th–century design) and the graffiti on the walls becomes more pronounced. “Isn’t it so cool?” he asks a visitor.
O’Hare couldn’t appear happier, and with good reason: After years of planning, organizing and finally construction—not to mention a global pandemic thrown in—O’Hare can say with confidence that his project remodeling and refurbishing the old school on East 2nd Street into a boutique hotel is nearly complete. In fact, it’s moved along so well of late that the developer is confident the hotel will be open by fall of this year.
“The construction is well underway, so we have to meet that schedule,” he explains while walking the grounds recently. “It’s always tough with historic buildings. Once you start the construction process and begin tearing things apart, there are all these unknown elements that tend to slow you down, and we’ve had some of that, but so far, we’ve been able to overcome and stay on schedule.”
As O’Hare moves through the property, his eyes widen with enthusiasm whenever he begins to explain the history surrounding him, how the past will play into the future. There’s the former auditorium that was once used for school meetings and plays but will soon be reserved for meetings and events as it serves as the hotel’s events center. An outline of the stage the school built in the 1950s traces the wall, gone for now, but inspiration for the future.
Then, there’s the old chapel, which carries the pomp it did decades ago, despite it being mostly gutted. Come this time next year, if all goes according to plan, it will play home to a restaurant; a bar that is expected to fill the space where an altar once stood. Though there’s no working
official name for the restaurant, O’Hare smiles as he explains the plans he and his business partner, Lance Jaccard, have for the space.
“The chapel has been deconsecrated, so we did talk to the archdiocese about [the restaurant and bar] because we wanted to be sensible about it,” the former lawyer notes. “Many of the historic fabric will remain here; we want to keep it all. The chapel space is pretty spectacular and we’re excited for this to open. I’ve talked to people who have lived in Frederick their whole lives and they’ve never been on these grounds, so it should be really wonderful.”
One factor O’Hare hopes will draw potential customers will be celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio, who will head up the restaurant. If O’Hare has his way, the eatery will, in turn, help attract people to one of the 66 rooms the hotel will offer. He will remain part of the group that owns and manages the property, but the hotel will operate under the Marriott umbrella.
Even so, the hotel won’t be the only living space on the Visitation Academy grounds. Two new residential buildings also will be on the property. One of them, with 10 condo units that are already sold, is under construction and on schedule for a March opening; the other, O’Hare says, should be ready sometime in spring 2024. That building will feature seven units.
Prices for the hotel rooms, he estimates, will be around $200 a night. Prices for the 17 condominiums are ranging from about $650,000 to $1.3 million. (While sales have not opened for the second building yet, O’Hare is optimistic the units will go fairly quickly.). “There’s tremendous demand for people living Downtown here,” he says, “but there’s very limited supply.”
Lodging in Downtown is also limited, so much that his boutique hotel isn’t the only hotel project that has been swirling around Frederick’s Downtown area for the past few years. Indeed, just down the street at 200 E. Patrick St. is a lot that has been earmarked for a potential hotel and conference center for years, despite the project encountering countless stalls, stops and starts.
The prospect of the hotel/conference center actually coming to fruition doesn’t concern O’Hare. In fact, he’s quick to point out how welcoming he is of the project and the people behind it—particularly local hotel developer Pete Plamondon—are encouraging him.
“He’s been very supportive of our plans here,” O’Hare says in reference to Plamondon. “Our thought is we are a boutique hotel and what Pete is planning is a conference center and a hotel. It’s a different thing. I think the two would really be synergetic, so we’re really supportive of his efforts to bring more hospitality into Frederick. He’s been really incredible.”
Another force of support behind the Visitation Academy hotel is the City of Frederick itself. As it goes, the entire project would have never hatched if O’Hare hadn’t met with Richard Griffin, the city’s economic development director, in 2015. After touring a few possibilities, including the old Goodwill Industries site on East Church Street, Griffin called O’Hare to put him in touch with Visitation’s board of directors after the school closed.
It wouldn’t be until 2017 that O’Hare’s group purchased the property. He had experience rehabilitating historic properties in Baltimore, Annapolis and Delaware, among other locations, and the Visitation School, with a history that dates back to before the Civil War, appealed to him. From there, he says, he has rarely run into issues while working with both the city and local residents to get the project done.
“The city has been excellent,” he says earnestly. “The neighbors on 2nd Street and Church Street have been fantastic. City planning has been terrific to deal with, and overall, the process has been very smooth. The biggest challenge is dealing with a historic building and trying to bring that historic building up to modern building code. But we’ve done those types of things before.”
That, he has. And his excitement as he walks through his latest venture proves his passion for giving life to places once robbed of breath. Speaking of breath, it is hard not to be out of it as O’Hare navigates his way toward the top of those never-ending stairs. Within minutes, he’s standing on a tiny section of the highest point of the school’s roof, even with the top of Frederick’s most iconic buildings.
He explains how his group will keep the academy’s cemetery intact. He explains how he guides tours to where he is standing to experience such a majestic view. He explains how optimistic he is that the hotel will open on time and the condominiums will be ready when they need to be ready.
Later, for the first time all day, he finally faces a question he cannot answer definitively.
“So, will you stay here on opening night, or maybe be the first one to sleep in a room the night before everything opens?”
He laughs at the thought.
“You know, that’s a really interesting question,” he responds with a smile. “I haven’t thought about that yet, so I don’t know.
“But you know what?” he asks rhetorically. “Now that you ask, I just might.”