An up-to-date, old-time insurer Equitable Society still makes its mark

November 26, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

For many Baltimoreans, there is a minimystery in the plaques showing clasped hands and 1794 -- in gleaming gold leaf -- that adorn thousands of houses and other buildings in the area.

Are they address markers? No. Do they indicate the building's age? No.

They are "fire marks," relics of an earlier time. They show the building is insured by Maryland's oldest fire insurance company, the Baltimore Equitable Society, founded in 1794 by a group of local merchants.

In the days before paid fire service, volunteer fire companies refused to put out blazes in uninsured buildings and fought over which unit would battle a particular fire. The plaques identified which firm held the insurance policy. The Equitable is the only fire insurance company still issuing real fire marks to its policyholders. Reproductions of old fire marks frequently appear decoration on houses.

Now housed in an imposing, two-story 1857 Renaissance Revival building at Eutaw and Fayette Streets, the Equitable has its own museum, open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The centerpiece is the company's collection of fire marks from 17th-century Europe, the British Isles, defunct Baltimore insurers; even the company's current plaque is on display.

Entering the Equitable's headquarters is like stepping back into business history. The building, originally built for the Eutaw Savings Bank, was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The Eutaw bank moved across the street to a building now used as a catering hall and the Equitable took over its old building in 1889.

Once past the frosted-glass foyer doors, etched with the operating hours, visitors enter a cavernous room. The ceiling is 21 feet high. The long walnut counter with its grillwork and carved decorations dates back to the building's opening.

The Equitable also may be the only insurance company where the chief executive -- called the treasurer -- stops to guide visitors through an in-house museum.

Because the company has remained small -- 5,000 policyholders; most in metropolitan Baltimore -- it continues to operate in the old way. As recently as 25 years ago, everything was done by hand.

"We haven't decided to conquer the rest of the world; we just do what we do best," says Stephen J. Bernhardt, the 12th chief executive since 1794.

When he took over in 1967, the high desks where clerks kept big ledgers -- a sight Charles Dickens would have found familiar -- were still in use. They have since been banished to the second-floor museum, the ledgers locked in vaults. In the late 1970s, the company installed a computer system.

"Except for the computers, everything is just as it has always been," says Mr. Bernhardt.

The company carefully cultivates its old-fashioned ambience, though its fire and homeowners' insurance policies are as modern as any in the industry, says Mr. Bernhardt. The oldest continuous policy has been in effect since 1823. It is for Davidge Hall, part of the University of Maryland medical school, a few blocks away on Lombard Street.

Policy No. 1, a seven-year coverage to Baltimore Street merchant Humphrey Pierce, was issued April 10, 1794. It is framed on the museum's wall. Also in the collection are two other policies and his fire mark, cast iron clasped hands mounted on wood, for Policy No. 3.

Mr. Bernhardt's office, with its gilt-framed portraits of his predecessors looking down on him, is a minimuseum. Not only are the walls lined with fire marks, but also the mahogany desk made about 1810 for Joseph Townsend, the society's first chief executive, is there, along with a huge roll-top desk dating from the mid-19th century.

A heavy, iron-strapped door, dated 1852, fills one corner of a wall. It was the bank's strongroom. Near the black marble fireplace stands a brass cuspidor. Neither the fireplace nor the strongroom is used any longer.

Although the society's second-floor museum draws only about 500 visitors a year, it contains invaluable material about local families and old Baltimore buildings. Its collection includes city directories of residents and businesses dating from 1796, deeds to buildings demolished decades ago, and copies of old fire insurance policies.

After climbing the winding stairs to the second floor, one enters a vast chamber dominated by ranks of showcases and several hand-drawn fire-engines. The earliest model, called "The Hope," was used in Bordentown, N.J., and dates from 1805. The museum also has several cast-iron toy replicas of horse-drawn fire engines.

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, in which the Equitable paid out nearly $2 million to cover 445 claims, is well represented. Also here is an extensive collection of photographs and old prints of antique fire equipment and some of the world's biggest fires.

A section of pictures and documents pays tribute to Benjamin Franklin who, in 1752, founded the Philadelphia Contributorship, the country's first fire insurance company. It is still in business. A fire chief's helmet sits atop a gilded bust of Franklin, a nod to the great man's sense of humor.

The museum also contains a vast array of antique fire equipment, uniforms, helmets, fire buckets, the big rattles firemen twirled as alarms, and several speaking trumpets chiefs used to direct fire operations in the days before bullhorns and walkie-talkies.

Showcases hold nearly 100 examples of the colorfully decorated, tall leather hats volunteer firemen wore in parades. Some of the ++ hats date from the mid-18th century. Also on display are several torches the volunteers carried to light the way as they marched.

'We are a repository of the past," says Mr. Bernhardt. "But our product today is as modern as it can be and we've made a commitment to keep it that way."

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