For 15 consecutive Februarys, the American Craft Council show has brought warmth to Baltimore. During that time, the event has also become an institution.
It was a dreary and cold night in 1976 that I recall the first craft show, which was held at the south end (now demolished) of the old Civic Center. As usual, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer was championing the event as a plus for the city. I was skeptical, but left the exhibition hall considerably poorer and carrying two shopping bags full of purchases. I was a convert.
At the time the first show was held, Baltimore had so few restaurants downtown that they could be counted on three, maybe two, fingers. And downtown, as far as shops and night life were concerned, was in the process of folding its tent. Rebirth was on a distant horizon.
That weekend, lines formed around the Civic Center -- and there was no circus, ice show or professional wresting act in town. People were coming downtown to see a crafts show, to buy vases, table linens, jewelry and other arty objects. It was something of a miracle. People were leaving their homes to attend an event that had never taken place here before.
The craft show opened the city to the yearlong local calendar of trade and other shows. It gave Baltimoreans other reasons to go downtown and to avoid the more tourist-oriented venues.
The craft show's success has lasted for 15 annual installments, despite two major blizzards -- one in 1979 was accompanied by looting and a curfew imposed by police. Today, the show fills the Convention Center and Expo Hall. There's even a small overflow that is staged at the Hyatt Regency.
Baltimore also adopted the craft show as its own. Federal Hill and Otterbein residents open their homes for free lodgings to the artists who display their handmade wares.
Some, such as Steven Mackintosh, a cabinetmaker from Deansboro, N.Y., stay at a Riverside Avenue bed-and-breakfast in the Federal Hill historic district. Mackintosh has watched the city change during his 15 visits here.
"It's a little sad to see the old working dry docks go and be turned into homes for yuppies. . . . And I used to jog along Howard Street. It was a funky place. There's no doubt the city has lost its seedy character. On the other hand, look what happened to Utica [N.Y.]. It's an old industrial city that is losing its population badly," he commented.
Lee Marriccini, a jeweler from Charlottesville, Va., is another craftsman who started at the Civic Center. "It was frightening for many of the crafts artists to come to the city. We were living in the hills, in the deep country. We were part of the 1960s. The city was threatening.
"Baltimore has changed. Look at your restaurants. I come here and can get a great dinner at the Helmand Restaurant for $14 with tip. And there's terrific sushi at Nichi Bei Kai," Marriccini said.
Ceramic artist Jeffrey Sigulis travels to Baltimore each winter from Sebastopol, Calif., a town north of San Francisco.
"Your Harborplace is a little bit like Fisherman's Wharf [in San Francisco], but not as schlocky. Harborplace has more style. It's not as generic as some of these tourist places," Sigulis said.
"My room at the Harbor Court is magnificent. And I had curried crab soup, barbecued chicken wings and raspberry beer at Sisson's. It's a killer place. The best."
Josh Simpson, a glass blower from Shelburne, Mass., also has displayed his wares here for 15 years. "I miss the old spice factory on the harbor [McCormick's]," he said. "You'd walk outside and know they were milling nutmeg. It was like being in Istanbul."