Old business building transformed into cafe


February 05, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The curious who pressed their faces to the show window at 405 N. Charles St. can now walk directly into the artfully restored landmark building.

The new establishment is the Vanguard Cafe, the creation of designer Nancy Smanko and chef Krista Apitz, the co-owners.

The pair transformed one of Charles Street's oldest business addresses -- the 1916 building that housed Bowen & King, opticians -- into a stylish, informal restaurant-cafe-bar.

"It is the loveliest part of Baltimore," says Smanko. "I wanted to do something here. I think people wanted a place to go in this neighborhood. Charles Street is such a great street. The more businesses that open here, the better it gets."

Smanko is a resident of the 1000 block of N. Charles St. and an ardent believer in the Mount Vernon neighborhood and admires its 1860s houses, shops, churches, monuments, museums, galleries and stores so beloved by Baltimor eans.

Vanguard seems to reflect the reserved personalities of its HTC owners. The dining room is more like a parlor outfitted with mahogany dining room chairs, comfortable wing chairs and some Victorian sofas. Artist Peter Dubeau's paintings hang from the 15-foot-high walls. There are Federal-style mantels and a marble mosaic tile floor.

Some people actually said you're going to cover that floor with carpet, aren't you. I looked at them like they were crazy," says Smanko, a Baltimore-born decorator.

Smanko combed the Richard Opfer and Dance Brothers auction houses for the dark wood chairs and settees she wanted for the restaurant. She then had the furniture refinished and reupholstered.

On a bright February afternoon, the lunch crowd was comfortably settled into her carefully appointed dining room. It had the look of a first-class salon on a trans-Atlantic liner. All that was lacking was a tea-dance orchestra.

Last summer, Smanko and her partner worked alongside construction crews to effect the transformation from a former eyeglass shop -- the Bowen & King business is now one door to the south -- to a restaurant that seems to belong in a fine building that faces the archbishop's residence.

They hired local talent, including the Valley Craftsmen, to sponge-paint the walls in a soft ocher tone.

Contractor Steve Freeman built a gloriously curving bar of Scandinavian birch.

"It has five coats of stain and six coats of hand-rubbed lacquer, then satin finished. It curves around at a 45-degree angle," he says.

The cafe comes with one of the most elaborate exteriors along all of Charles Street. It was the work of Baltimore architect Theodore Wells Pietsch, one of the city's most renowned designers of the World War I and 1920s eras.

The cafe's facade, built about 15 years before his masterpiece, SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church and rectory in the 2800 block of N. Charles St. in Charles Village has a number of design references -- especially Pietsch's triumphant, rounded central window.

Careful watchers of Barry Levinson's "Homicide" will catch another Pietsch work, the Recreation Pier building on Thames Street in Fells Point, with its signature arched windows.

The Vanguard Cafe follows in the footsteps of other well known Charles Street restaurants that opened in what had been earlier businesses. The Brass Elephant was formerly Potthast Brothers, hand-made furniture store. Louie's Cafe was Biggs, another furniture showroom.

Thieves helped themselves to a leaded-glass French door while the Vanguard Cafe was being renovated this past summer.

"It was a real loss, but luckily, we'd had it photographed and videotaped. It's now in the hands of the insurance people," Smanko says.

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