Razing plans on hold for Thomas Building


June 09, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

At the southeast corner of Baltimore and Light streets is a six-story building that helped people survive the Great Depression.

The Thomas Building was known after the 1929 stock market crash as the place that always had a big bowl of free graham crackers at the soda fountain. For many people seeking jobs in downtown Baltimore, that handout was the only fortification they had all day.

Half a century later, the Thomas Building has become a survivor itself.

Now owned by the McDonald's Corp., the building was targeted for demolition in 1989 to make way for a 45-story office tower called One Light Street. Other buildings set to come down for the same project were the Southern Hotel at 7-11 Light St., the office building at 5 Light St., and the storefronts at 105 to 115 E. Baltimore St.

This spring the developers who assembled the property decided to reduce the size of their proposed office tower to about 25 stories. Their latest plan is to raze the other structures, which they own, and build around the Thomas Building, which they never actually acquired.

"Since we're constructing a much smaller building, we don't need the square footage," said J. Joseph Clarke, head of Clarke Enterprises and managing agent for the development team, an affiliate of Capital Guidance of Washington and Paris. "We had it under option until September of 1993, but we let the option expire."

Although the Thomas building was never designated a city landmark the way the Southern Hotel was, many longtime Baltimoreans have fond memories of it.

"More than a few people used to keep themselves from passing out by eating those graham crackers," Mr. Clarke said. "People really suffered in those years. It was a real treat."

"It was a gesture of the times," said John Thomas III, whose family ran the drugstore that dispensed the crackers. "You could always come in and get a handful."

The Thomas Building was the third home of Thomas and Thompson, a pharmacy established in 1872 by John Benjamin Thomas and Albert E. Thompson, who were seated alphabetically next to each other at the University of Maryland's School of Pharmacy.

The pharmacists started at Dolphin Street and Druid Hill Avenue, and moved to the Baltimore street location in 1892. When their building was destroyed in the 1904 fire, they erected the present one. Designed in a French Renaissance style by Baltimore architects William Miller Ellicott and William Wirt Emmart, it is notable for its mansard roof and large bay windows.

Battered by the emergence of regional drugstore chains, Thomas and Thompson closed its retail operation in 1973 and leased the Baltimore street space to McDonald's Corp., which opened a restaurant the same year. McDonald's bought the building in 1984 for $900,000.

Before World War II, "it was a hot corner," recalled Mr. Thomas. "The Southern Hotel was jumping on one side, and the Emerson was jumping on the other. We didn't have hot and cold running water. We had hot and cold running blondes."

Now 71, Mr. Thomas worked at the family business for four decades. He was a youngster when his grandfather decided to put out the crackers -- as a combination of goodwill and good business.

"I can still hear my grandfather say: 'We'll give them a bowl of free graham crackers, because they're so dry. Instead of drinking one Cola-Cola, those who can afford to will drink two or three. And those who can't afford to pay can still get a handful of graham crackers for free.' Many a person did just that."

The Baltimorean

Mr. Clarke has another project in the works: renovation of The Baltimorean apartment building at 2905 N. Charles St. This month, Clarke Enterprises will purchase the 64-unit, four-story apartment house from the Johns Hopkins University.

After a $200,000 renovation, it will reopen by fall as apartments for graduate students and others.

Mr. Clarke has no intention of changing the name of the building, which dates from the 1920s. "It's the best name you can imagine," he said.

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