Christmas past holds appeal

Jacques Kelly

November 29, 1991|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Evening Sun Staff

Invariably, that old feeling strikes over the Thanksgiving weekend.

It's a longing for Baltimore's old downtown department stores and their Christmas windows, precious wares and inventories.

No suburban mall can touch the excitement when the elevator reached the sixth floor and the doors slid back on a bustling Hochschild Kohn & Co. toy department. I can still hear the racket made by seven sets of highballing Lionel trains.

A new Peale Museum show, which opens today, does much to remind Baltimoreans of our collective memories of that period between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25, when families built the miniature villages, locally known as Christmas gardens, and hurriedly shopped along Lexington Street for Monopoly games, mechanical toys and flaxen-haired dolls.

"The Make-Believe World of Christmas," as this exhibition is called, contains one Lutherville family's 1940s-1980s Christmas garden, Christmas post cards mailed in Baltimore and brightly lithographed Santas. It also features enlarged, black-and-white photos of earlier gardens, Christmas trees and Baltimore families.

East Baltimore photographer John Dubas shot a 1915 Christmas tree in a heavily carpeted and draped parlor, maybe a home on Luzerne Avenue, where he once lived. The tree is not symmetrical, not the ideal cone shape we pay a fortune for today. (None of the vintage trees depicted in this show is perfect, except the artificial ones made of wire and dyed goose feathers.)

At the foot of this garlanded tree is a marvelous Baltimore Christmas garden, with its green sawdust lawns, wire-brush trees, wooly lambs, horses, and houses right out of a Bavarian toy shop. There is no electric train. A green cast-iron fence, similar to the iron enclosures of old homes and cemeteries, surrounds the miniature village.

Another photo shows a neighborhood Christmas garden in a Baltimore firehouse. (It's unidentified, but since the train station says Locust Point, it's safe to assume this is Fort Avenue.) This 1920s garden is larger and filled with the requisite streets and avenues. And could the miniature steam locomotive and coach be a Voltamp, the now rare electric train once made here near the Seton Hill neighborhood?

This show includes several fine photos of black families during the holiday season. The work of photographer Paul Henderson, the photos show a church Christmas party and a home with a child surrounded by an amazing spread of 1940s toys.

There's no mistaking the standard-gauge Lionel train and garden in another photo. This family had three Christmas trees -- all delightfully misshapen -- and a boy's toy stationary steam engine. You built a real fire under its brass boiler and prayed it didn't burn the tree down, as actually happened one year at my family's house.

But the real star of this delightful and unpretentious show is an 1887 Christmas house, a fabulous piece of Baltimore folk art and home woodworking.

The Christmas House is the handwork of artisan Gustav Thomas Karow, a Hanover-trained cabinetmaker whose Prussian family originally spelled its name von Karowska.

The house, which is a cousin to a doll's house, was once used as the main feature of an early Baltimore Christmas garden. That village must have consumed half the floor space in the Karow's rowhouse at 2110 Bank Street, at the corner of Duncan Alley. The toy house reminds you of an old Belair Road homestead, except for its fancy cupola, which would be right at home atop a German city hall.

When the Karows left East Baltimore, they moved to Overlea and another old house on Glenmore Avenue. The Christmas house (( went along, too, and was stored away.

"The rain would be beating on that old shingled roof and we'd be indoors, in the attic, playing with the house," said Bill Bauer, a Fells Point resident whose daughter donated the piece to the Peale.

"My dad was the Christmas artiste," Bauer said. "He was a real bug on Christmas gardens. He built the platforms and the sawhorses. He made the hills and the valleys and the landscapes. When the electric train came, he bought one. He arranged the little people and the animals. And woe be unto the guy who damaged anything in that garden."

Bauer recalled that part of his pre-Christmas task was to haul the miniature, but still heavy, iron fencing out of storage to go up around the Christmas house. The fencing was made by a great-uncle who worked in a foundry.

The Peale Museum is at 225 N. Holliday St., one block north of City Hall.

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