Miss Shades presides over a labor of love


July 12, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

A knock sounded at the back door of the house at 726 Deepdene Road in Roland Park.

"Is Miss Shades in?" the caller inquired.

Miss Shades is Gene Miller Rowe, the brightest light in the House of Shades.

More than 40 years ago, this North Baltimorean began making lamp shades for a few friends after she'd taken a course in paper cutting at the Woman's Club of Roland Park. Today, many a North Charles Street or Ridgewood Road home has an old brass or Oriental lamp topped by her work. Her one-time hobby is a flourishing business.

"I had always done needlework, needlepoint, knitting. I love to use my hands. When I first learned to make and cover shades, I couldn't stop," she said the other day, surrounded by paste pots, metal frames, bolts of silk and rolls of parchment.

She credits two Baltimore merchants with giving her the encouragement to start and continue a real business.

"John Schwarz had an antique shop at Charles near 20th Street. He really helped me and was so knowledgeable with Oriental art. The other was Ike [Isaac] Lycett, who had a large store downtown on Charles Street.

"I told Ike, I don't really want to take on a lot of orders. But he gave me so much work I didn't know who I was," she said.

The House of Shades is an actual cottage industry. It is headquartered in the 100-year-old Deepdene Road house just south of Roland Park Public School. Many of the shades are made in the old kitchen; the orders are taken in the former dining room. The parlor is a show room. If you weren't born in the neighborhood, the place can be hard to find. Plus there's usually a minor traffic jam outside the nearby post office and bank.

"I needed a place 32 years ago. I was outgrowing my house. This was zoned commercial and it's convenient to my customers," Mrs. Rowe said.

This is the corner of Roland Park where fashion immunity prevails. The Bermuda hand bag and the cotton wrap-around skirt have never fully disappeared.

From the porch of the House of Shades, you could throw a 60-watt light bulb to such Zone Ten neighborhood commercial landmarks as Gundy's gift shop, Eddie's Supermarket and the Tuxedo Pharmacy.

"It's a fun place to work. I wouldn't want it to be too business-like. We all laugh here. We try to have a good time. I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.

The House of Shades is not a one-woman operation. She has several women, many of them elderly, who take on the tedious hand stitching on the pleated silk shades.

"A shade like this sells for $300," Mrs. Rowe said as she held up a large silk model, "but I wouldn't want to think how many hours of work went into it. As long as my ladies are willing to do the hand work, I can stay in business," she said.

She also has a welder to make metal frames. And stored in a back room are 40 years of cutout paper diagrams (they resemble dressmaking patterns) used to ensure the proper size for the lamp bases her customers bring. Her daughters also are in the business. Susan Gatchell does shade cut work while Dale Leand operates the House of Shades Too in Barrington, R.I.

In North Baltimore, Miss Shades explains, there are distinct lampwear preferences:

"Parchment is O.K. for everyday rooms, but for the formal rooms, they want silk, as a rule pleated."

For many years, she also had an important sideline, her Washington connection.

"My husband kept telling me, you've got to get into the Washington market. I told him, 'You're the salesman, I'm not.' So he loaded a station wagon with shades with irregularly shaped oval shades and went to Miriam Crocker on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.

"He laid them all out on the sidewalk. She said she'd take every one on the condition that every two weeks I bring a fresh supply and take orders. That made for some interesting work, the embassies, Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post. Anybody who was anybody went to Miriam Crocker for lamps," she said.

The other big business in this end of Baltimore is the private school. The House of Shades is well aware of the geographical coincidence and sells white parchment shades with the Bryn Mawr, Gilman, St. Paul's, Loyola, McDonogh, Boys' Latin and Roland Park Country School emblems.

"I used to make shades with the Colts and the Orioles names. But when they asked me to take shades for the whole NFL, I put my foot down and said, 'No!.' "

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