Holzapfel Violin Shop, chockablock in music and history, is rescued

May 19, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

A little part of a big piece of Baltimore history comes back to life tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. At a reception for invited guests, the museum will unveil "Making Music: The Holzapfel Violin Shop." The exhibit, which is devoted to the 90-year history (1898-1988) of what was probably Baltimore's most important instrument factory and best-known repair shop, opens to the public tomorrow.

It was at this factory, which manufactured mandolins and guitars and other instruments, as well as violins, that Carl Holzapfel Sr. perfected the 12-string guitar that made a musical revolution possible. Most of the great early bluesmen -- including Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and the young Muddy Waters, whose innovations were to help make rock 'n' roll possible -- played Holzapfel guitars.

But the exhibit was made possible by the man who will perform at the reception tonight -- the renowned classical cellist Stephen Kates. Kates and his wife, Mary Louise, who live near Annapolis, bought the shop -- a four-floor building in West Baltimore -- and its contents three years ago from Ruby Holzapfel, the widow of Carl Holzapfel Jr. The shop, which was founded in 1898 by Carl Holzapfel Sr. to cater to the city's music-loving and -playing German-American population, and to serve Peabody students and faculty, closed in 1988 when Carl Jr. died.

The Kateses have donated to the museum the shop's instrument-making machines and many of the forms that were used to mold wood, as well as hundreds of the thousands of instruments that remained in the shop.

"Stephen has a love of fine wood and of bringing old instruments back to life," says Mrs. Kates, an interior designer, in explaining why she and her husband bought the shop. "I was fascinated by the decorative arts aspect of a lot of the things that remained in the shop. For each of us it was like discovering the world's biggest diamond."

Mrs. Holzapfel had interviewed buyers for the shop for three years before the Kateses contacted her.

"I love Baltimore and I hate to see things pass away," says Mrs. Holzapfel, now in her 80s. "I had hoped Stephen could continue the business, but I can understand that that was impossible. I think he's done the best he can [in giving the machines to the museum]."

The historic value of the shop, which was nationally known for its guitars and Neapolitan mandolins, is incalculable, says the well-known New York guitar maker Tom Humphreys.

"I'd call it the greatest guitar find of the 20th century," says Mr. Humphreys, who explored the shop with Mr. Kates two years ago. "For a guitarist to see the upstairs of that shop, where instruments were actually made, could be likened to discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Dennis Zembala, Museum of Industry director, is only slightly more circumspect.

"Since the museum opened in 1981 this -- the gift of an essentially complete shop -- has happened only two or three times before," Mr. Zembala says. "It's important because the shop's a symbol of an important aspect of Baltimore, instrument making, that's been almost completely forgotten. Because Baltimore was a major port, it was possible to import easily ebony, mahogany and rosewood; and its proximity to the hardwood Appalachian forests made available the maple, hickory and oak also necessary for fine instruments."

The reason Humpreys and others have been so impressed by seeing the contents of the shop was that the basement, where much of the heavy machinery was located and the wood was stored, and the upstairs, where the instruments were made, had been mostly untouched since the beginning of the Depression.

"It was like entering King Tut's tomb," Stephen Kates says of the first time he saw the upstairs of the shop. "There were newspapers on the table from 1929 -- it was as if more than 70 years had disappeared in a time warp."

When Kates returned to the shop with his wife, he found hundreds of violins, guitars, mandolins and cellos -- many of them in working condition or capable of being restored. He also found: two Victrolas in working condition; a player piano on the first floor and a hand-carved piano on the third that was, amazingly, still in tune; several valuable violins -- some of them made by well-known 17th- and 18th-century makers; barrels of instrument parts; and rare woods, including a 150-pound log of ebony of a kind that became extinct decades ago.

That the three upper floors at Holzapfel's went largely unused was caused by a variety of factors. One reason, of course, was the Depression. Another was that the turtle-backed Neapolitan mandolin, which had been the mainstay of Carl Sr.'s factory, had been outmoded by the sturdier, more powerful flat-backed mandolin introduced by the Gibson company. But the most important was probably that people had begun turning on the radio or playing the phonograph when they wanted to hear music, instead of playing it themselves.

Carl Holzapfel Sr. went on making instruments until his death in 1963 at the age of 89.

Carl Jr. continued to repair instruments until his death at the age of 83 in 1988.

But mass-production at the shop was dead long before either of them.

"Baltimore has not had a major instrument-making shop in a long time," Stephen Kates says. "I wish we could have reopened the shop ourselves, but in a way this gift from Mary Louise and myself returns Holzapfel's to the city of Baltimore."

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