Erdman Ave. eatery retains '40s flavor


September 09, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The griddle never gets cold at the Erdman Avenue White Tower hamburger shop.

For more than 40 years, the restaurant, which seats 17, has also been serving up good coffee and custard pie -- and plenty of talk.

This White Tower, at Erdman Avenue and Belair Road, is the lone local survivor of what was once a bustling national chain.

The coffee urns and Formica counters never varied from franchise to franchise, from Milwaukee to Manhattan.

The thriving Northeast Baltimore restaurant's porcelain enamel exterior shines as snowy white as a line of laundry in the Belair-Edison neighborhood. The company mascot, a little man who holds a platter of food, still beckons customers above the stainless steel front door. The art deco letters are a little faded, but retain much of their original turquoise hue.

"We still do a good business with older people who live around here. We don't get much of a young crowd. We sell a good hamburger. People like our pancakes. . . . We never close, 24 hours a day, except for Christmas," says owner Joe Hagege, a White Tower man since 1950.

The restaurant he now owns is small, with 11 stools and three two-person booths. It possesses all the hallmarks of 1940s roadside Americana -- the pots of coffee, piles of cinnamon doughnuts, custard pies arranged on wire racks. A basic hamburger with no frills is 80 cents. A plain grilled cheese, $1.05. An order of scrapple runs $1. The place is packed after Sunday Mass at the Shrine of the Little Flower, the Catholic church around the corner.

And there's waitress-cook Selma Clark, a lady with a deep voice and hearty laugh who's been with the chain since 1957.

"You should have seen us when we wore the red polka-dot uniforms. They were cotton and had to be washed, ironed and starched. What a lot of work they were," she says of one of the many uniform changes she's been through in her years here. Today, she wears a green knit jersey shirt stitched with the White Tower name.

The White Tower empire was founded in the middle 1920s by T. E. Saxe. It arrived in Baltimore about 10 years later to do economic and gastronomic battle with its mightiest local competitor, the Little Tavern, a Baltimore-Washington company that still has a few shops in operation.

The local links in the White Tower chain were arranged numerically. Park Circle was No. 1; Liberty Street (later Light Street and still later, Randallstown), No. 2; Washington LTC Boulevard, opposite Montgomery Ward, No. 3; Charles and North, No. 4; Pulaski Highway and Highland Avenue, No. 5; Erdman Avenue, No. 6; Baltimore Street, between Calvert and South streets, No. 7; Howard and Centre streets, No. 8; and Greenmount and Exeter Hall avenues, No. 9. Only Erdman survives as a White Tower.

Individual White Towers were made of component parts so that their overall design did not vary too much. The Erdman Avenue shop, for example, once stood at the corner. About 1954, it was jacked up and moved to the east. Residents still recall that remarkable moving day. Not a pane of glass broke.

When the Howard Street White Tower closed, it was carefully dismantled and donated to the Baltimore City Life Museum, which one day hopes to re-erect it. It's now in storage. The Pulaski Highway and Washington Boulevard White Towers closed earlier this year.

There are but a few White Towers left nationally. Atlantic City has two, one each on Atlantic and Pacific avenues.

Owner Hagege prefers to ride out his chain-restaurant career on a small scale, working in an old neighborhood with his remaining longtime employees.

"In the 1950s, we have five or six customers for every stool," says Hagege, who began with the chain as a counterman.

"You should have seen how busy Washington Boulevard was before the Harbor Tunnel opened and people had to drive through Baltimore to get to Washington," says Clark, the waitress who can scramble an egg faster than most people can say chicken.

White Towers traded on customer recognition of its familiar white metal walls trimmed with turquoise accents and bright lights at night. Today, we'd call it a corporate identity, but 45 years ago all it meant was nickel coffee, doughnuts, hamburgers, Coca-Cola and Orange Crush.

Over the years, waffles made their way onto the menu. Then came the pancakes. Today, the Erdman White Tower does a respectable round-the-clock trade with eggs, French toast, omelets, hash browns, sandwiches and ham steaks.

"People are brainwashed by the television ads for McDonald's and Burger King and Wendy's," Hagege says of his mightier competition. "But we still cook to order."

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