Etched in stone

Baltimore Glimpses

July 14, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

EVERY so often in Baltimore you will come across a building, usually but not always an older one, with a name carved into the stonework above the door. It's often the name of the founding business that once occupied the premises.

Sometimes 20 or 30 years after the original owner-occupier has departed, the name is still there, effectively linking present and past. If you've been around this town a while, you can fill in the history in between.

For example . . .

Carved into the stone at the front of 105 North Charles St. is the name "S. & N. Katz." The chain of jewelry stores is still very much alive, but most of its 10 stores are in suburban malls. (In 1964 there were 12 Katz stores.) Bull on the Beach, an Ocean City bar-restaurant, most recently occupied 105 North Charles. It's vacant today.

Or take the building that occupies the better part of the west side of the 200 block North Howard Street. Into the black marble over the door has been worked the name of the venerable and long-closed Baltimore institution, Hutzler Bros., recalling that grand era when downtown department stores were the royalty of retailing. The building, one of Baltimore's most famous landmarks, is vacant.

Then, there's the Bowen & King building at 405 North Charles St. It's vacant, too. But Bowen & King opticians is still very much in business -- next door at 403 North Charles St.

The Sun Life building at Charles at Redwood streets, unlike the others mentioned, is not an old building; it was built in rather recent times as part of Charles Center. But the Sun Life Insurance Co. name carved into the stone outside the door is misleading. There is no Sun Life in the Sun Life building -- anymore.

There is no Provident Bank in the Provident Bank building on the northwest corner of North and Maryland avenues, either -- though there it is, carved in stone above the door, "Provident Bank, Northern Branch." (Think about that: North Avenue was where the bank said its northern branch was.) The building today is not occupied.

There is no Calvert Bank in the Calvert Bank building on the southeast corner of Saratoga and Howard, either. But that is what the name carved into the stone above the door still reads, long after the Calvert Bank closed its doors forever years ago.

Which reminds us: There is no Equitable Trust in the Equitable Bank Center at Charles and Lombard, though the name is carved in stone in huge letters. Maryland National, which bought Equitable, is stuck with it.

The six-story building on the northeast corner of Lombard and Paca has been renovated and gussied up and is now an attractive apartment building. But it was once a clothing factory, owned and operated by -- the sign carved into the stone two stories up reveals -- Strouse & Bros."

Strouse & Bros. was once one of the country's largest manufacturers of men's clothing. It was liquidated in 1920, but the Strouse & Bros. sign, still there in 1992, is a reminder that until the 1950s Baltimore was a world center for the industry. (See Baltimore Glimpses, June 30.)

This story runs the other way, too. The Bible House at 9 East Franklin St. has its name carved into the stone above its door. But it is still occupied by the Maryland Bible Society and has been since 1925, when the original structure was remodeled expressly for it.

The whole phenomenon is a retelling of the story of our lives -- what happened to us during those years of change, between now and then. It is a commentary, too, on the view of life, then against now. You don't see names set permanently into buildings these days, the way you once did.

Today, a retailer moves into a shopping center and signs, maybe, a five-year lease, sending the message of impermanence. But 30 years ago (and longer), when a business was established, its owners took the time and expense to set its name for the ages, sending the message that they planned to stay in Baltimore forever.

If some didn't make it, you have to think they meant to. They carved it in stone.

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