It would have been easy to label Theresa Baier one of downtown Baltimore's bag ladies. She wore battered old clothes and carried a plastic bag of sandwiches. She often needed a bath. She could be unpleasant and snarl at people.
When her will was read, after her July 1990 death, the document revealed that one of Howard Street's truly remarkable characters had amassed an extensive estate, later determined to be worth $4.3 million. The bulk of it was left to animal protection groups, the Red Cross and St. Elizabeth's School and Habilitation Center.
For 60 years, antiques dealer Baier was a crusty mainstay of Howard Street's 800 block, better known as Antique Row, where her shop was cluttered with crystal, porcelains and silver.
She was a miser, who spent almost nothing on herself and would buy day-old bread and salami heels. She bought her clothes at the Veterans' Warehouse. And, while her antique shop's inventory was filled with French clocks and Chinese porcelain, all she needed in her upstairs quarters were "a chair, a bed and a table." She drove a beat-up old station wagon, which had 285,000 miles on it.
She was born Theresa Zapf in Germany in 1904. She came to this country in the 1920s. Her first husband, Vincent Baier, who also was German, was a cabinetmaker. They opened a shop together in the 800 block of Howard St. in the 1930s. They had no children. She and her husband were fond of Chihuahua dogs.
Early on, she began investing in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. stock, real estate and antiques. Associates along the street recall she had a keen eye, knew good from bad and was not at all sentimentally attached to any of her goods. All the silver, china, enamels and cloisonne were merely chattels to be sold at a profit.
She never tried to be a good saleswoman. There was never any attempt to display her wares gracefully. Dust was everywhere.
She had no patience with customers out for an afternoon's entertainment looking at pretty things on Howard Street.
"She would say, 'Have you got any money? Or are you just looking? If you're looking, get out of here and go to the Walters' Museum.' She put many a woman customer into tears. . . . She was a great character, one of the greatest," said Thayne Williams, an antique dealer whose shop was next door to Baier's business for many years.
"New York had the Collier Brothers. Baltimore had Theresa Baier."
After her first husband's death in the 1960s, Baier quietly married Lloyd Hoch, another antiques dealer who was 30 years her junior. He owned several buildings and accumulated much furniture. They seemed to get along together until his unexpected death at age 52 several years ago.
By the 1980s, her life-long stock accumulations had burgeoned. She owned five Howard Street commercial buildings, which she never improved. If a pipe burst, she would cut the water supply off rather than make a major repair. At one point, she used the lavatories and washrooms at the Greyhound Bus Station and Maryland General Hospital.
Toward the end of her life, she fell and elected to enter Keswick, a nursing home in north Baltimore. She could afford elaborate quarters, but picked a simple, almost monastic room. She was given good care, seemed to enjoy the place and began to dress better. She died of cancer July 14, 1990.
Her will left $567,187 each to the Red Cross, the Baltimore branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, the National Wildlife Federation and St. Elizabeth's School. A $50,000 bequest went to the Humane Society of Baltimore County. The beneficiaries had no idea of her intentions. Some $756,000 went to two nephews in Germany.
And, while she was not religiously observant, she gave $50,000 to St. Vincent de Paul Church and the same amount to the Reparation Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Fatima House. This was a gesture to her second husband, a religious man whose quarters were filled with paintings of the Virgin Mary.
It was often speculated that Theresa Baier was not a poor woman, even if she dressed that way. Now, as the groups she helped receive their checks, the tale emerges.