An elaborate makeover has transformed something called the Towson Town Center into a merchandising Xanadu, but I'll always call it Towson Plaza.
Towson Plaza was just another regional shopping center when it opened May 13, 1959. It was one of a long line of these roadside bazaars. Baltimore's oldest is a Department of the Interior official landmark, the Roland Park Shopping Center, in the 4800 block of Roland Ave. The long line of shopping centers includes Edmondson Village, Mondawmin, Eastpoint, Northwood, Westview, Eudowood and Harundale, plus those that have proliferated in the last 20 years.
The Towson Plaza of 1959 was an instant, if low-key, success. It certainly wasn't pretentious. Indeed, one of its big draws was a Food Fair store and an S.S. Kresge five-and-ten-cent store. It was built as an open-to-the-weather, double-decker center. It lacked greenhouse-bred trees, polished brass and a cluster of fast-food outlets. No, in 1959, its builder, Baltimore County developer Ralph DeChiaro, played up his "terrazzo planters" and touches of wrought iron. The stores were often fitted with blond wood counters and the prevailing look was geometric, 1950s modern.
And, as real estate people say, Towson Plaza had location, location and location. Just up the hill was the almighty Hutzler Brothers retailing fortress, a store that proved a gold mine to the family-owned business for many years. The plaza was at the other end of the parking lot in a prosperous part of a rapidly expanding, baby-booming Baltimore County.
Our social world has been stood on its head since those last months of the Eisenhower administration. It is interesting to note that in 1959, Towson Plaza had its resident concierge, one Pearl Kaufman, an original tenant of the center. Today, Towson Town Center promotes that it thoughtfully distributes "complimentary diapers & bibs" to its patrons. There are also "security escorts with umbrellas."
One of the old Plaza's merchandising coups was that it attracted enough of the old Baltimore, the Baltimore of Charles and Howard streets, to Dulaney Valley Road. Its original catch of decidedly non-trendy stores were generally locally owned. And no one ever accused its customers of being slaves to fashion. Vintage tan raincoats and dresses bought at a hospital's sale of nearly new clothes were quite acceptable.
Three much respected and venerable downtown Baltimore institutions -- Bendann's art galleries; A. H. Fetting, the Charles Street jeweler; and Miller Brothers, women's clothing, opened branches here. Both Bendann and Miller Brothers are in the new Towson Town Center. Fettings, alas, closed gracefully last spring. Loyal customers returned for a last visit to the jeweler's, which seemed to embody what was best about the old Towson Plaza.
But there were other favorite shops -- A.S. Beck, Linda Lynn, Zepp's photos (which made the hike out from Waverly), Triangle sporting goods, Remington's books (another Charles Street denizen), Read's drug store and its stainless-steel soda fountain, Hammann's music, Loft's candy and a Selis shoe repair.
Other original tenants were Oppenheim Collins, Longley's Restaurant, Tuerke's leather goods (still trading there), Singer Sewing Machine, Loft's candies, Bishop's Holiday House pets and a Webster clothing store, which has also made it into the new center.
Other stores arrived -- the old Lohmeyer's and Frank Leonard, which outfitted many preppy North Baltimore males in silk rep and club ties, as well as trousers worn about a foot off the floor. There was a Hess Shoes and let's not overlook a trusty Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. appliance store.
The center soon established itself as the market and meeting place for north-central Baltimore County. Thus, the Democratic Party selected the Towson Plaza asphalt parking lot for an appearance for its presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, on Sept. 16, 1960. And when Project Mercury launched the United States into space, where was a sanctioned replica of a Mercury capsule displayed? Towson Plaza, of course.