Locksmith opens door to renovation

March 14, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

A friend of Roland E. Slaysman says Baltimore's dean of locksmithing would be a millionaire if he charged his clients by the hour.

The 77-year-old mechanical specialist walks into his back yard workshop and a few days later emerges with a perfectly functioning replica 1770 door lock for some stately mansion. He does take time off to eat and sleep, but he doesn't sit still much.

Slaysman is the man that experts call on for advice on restoring or making the locks for some of Maryland's architectural treasures -- such places as the Paca and Carroll houses in Annapolis, the B&O Railroad Station in Ellicott City (oldest in the nation) and Baltimore's Shot Tower, all with well-secured doors thanks to his efforts.

Havre de Grace architect James T. Wollon, an authority on old structures, says Slaysman's replacement parts "are visually identical to the originals" and often "functionally superior."

"I love a challenge. If can see it, I can copy it," the locksmith said the other day while working at his Idlewylde home south of Towson.

Slaysman credits his grandfather and father, both master machinists, with his skills. "All my family were perfectionists. They cursed me with being one too," he said.

He tells the story of the soap-box derby car he was building with his father. "It was almost finished and I decided to complete it without the help of my father. I did and the job wasn't perfect. He came home from work that day and smashed the thing to bits. It was a hard lesson to learn."

Slaysman recalls his youth spent along Waverly's Greenmount Avenue as an "Arundel cowboy," a reference to the group of young men he knew at the old Arundel ice cream store there. His haunts were also the Boulevard and Waverly movie theaters. His churches were St. Ann's and St. Bernard's.

As a young man he gained the reputation as someone who could fix or make anything. He bought his first car, a used 1929 Ford Victoria, a two-door coupe, for $29. "She ran," Slaysman said. Before long he had a used Studebaker Rockne, a model named for legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.

Slaysman credits his boyhood in Waverly with his affection for historic homes, especially one long gone that had ties to the Patterson and Bonaparte families that stood on the site of Kirk Field.

"It was a grand mansion surrounded by chestnut trees. It had its own cemetery. The front doors were so large you could drive a team of horses through them," he recalled of the old house in the Homestead part of Waverly.

Slaysman had completed a year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute when his father died in 1932, during Depression. The family needed an income, so Slaysman left school to help out.

"An uncle knew Mayor Howard Jackson who got me a job at the Pratt Library downtown," he said. "I was a page and mail boy. I thought I was special. We wore gray oxford cloth shirts and a leather tie.

"One afternoon one of the librarians told me to see her at 4:30. I thought I had done something wrong. But she said there was no real future for me as a library page and that I should get another job.

"She told me to apply at a wholesale hardware house, William H. Cole at 40 S. Charles St.," he said.That day in 1933 was the beginning his 61-year association with hinges, keys, bolts and locks.

From there, he went on to Stebbins Anderson in Towson, then to the Albert A. Gunther Hardware Company on Biddle Street, where in his 50 years of work he became known as Mister Hardware. Slaysman worked with architects and contactors to outfit office buildings, private homes and schools.

"I had been at Gunther's maybe two years and came home from work one day. My wife Libby said, 'I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that you got your draft notice. The good news is that you got a letter saying your car was paid off and I'm pregnant,' " Slaysman recalled.

In the locksmith's living room is a glass case that holds the medals he won during World War II.

He has two purple hearts, a bronze medal for valor and a Combat Infantry Badge, along with three Battle Stars. He was captured by German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge.

During his eight months as a prisoner, he found he couldn't sit still. After the Allies bombed the area around Pottsdam where he was being held, Slaysman went out of the prison camp on a work detail. In some rubble, he found a broken hack-saw blade. He picked it up, sharpened it and was soon carving miniature fox terriers and a version of the comic strip mule Sparkplug.

In 1950, he moved his family to his present home in Idlewylde, between York Road and Loch Raven Boulevard. When restoration of old homes began to catch on, Slaysman entered a second career, that of an expert on ancient hardware, especially locks, hinges and keys.

"We used to kid him that he kept more hardware and parts at home than we had at Gunther's," said C. Pickett Riehl Sr., who worked with Slaysman for more than 20 years.

Today Slaysman remains busy in his basement and a separate work space housed in a frame building at the edge of his back garden. He has a forge, lathes, tools and more locks than Fort Knox. Though nominally retired, he works with restoration architects and is a consultant to Designer's Hardware on Read Street downtown.

"I was blessed with a great wife and four wonderful children, Ronald, Deborah, Paul and Stephen. These are my greatest accomplishments, along with my nine grandchildren," he said.

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