Stove Shop Now A Warm Memory

September 30, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Tanya Jones contributed to this article.

Joe Thaler wasn't sure how he'd feel when his family's century-old stove shop was torn down.

A year ago, he said: "Maybe I'll look back for the last time and shed a tear, but then maybe again I won't."

He didn't.

The bulldozers were at the Thaler building in Old Town Baltimore this week, slowly bringing down a seven-sided, 19th-century building where five generations of Baltimoreans had bought stoves and stove parts. Mr. Thaler, great-grandson of founder Lorenz Thaler, went out of business in early 1993, selling the building to the city for $72,500.

A couple of days ago, he went back to the corner where Central Avenue crosses Gay and Madison streets to see what the city had done with his legacy. He found them razing it for new housing.

"I'd agree that the building wasn't worth keeping. I figured it would've cost me a quarter-of-a-million dollars to renovate it," said Mr. Thaler, 68, pointing his cane through the chain-link fence surrounding the site. "But they could have saved a lot of this stuff. That tin ceiling alone is worth a fortune and those light fixtures . . . you just can't buy 'em anymore."

In the heyday of cast-iron coal burning stoves, up to 30 employees worked at the George J. Thaler company, talking to each other through tubes that snaked through the three-story building.

And in its last years -- long after oil, gas and electric power had made wood and coal stoves into curiosities -- the company was a place to go for things no one else sold, like the odd gas cock for a 1925 Oriole range. If the part didn't exist, the Thalers could fabricate it in a sheet metal shop on the second floor.

The company did business for 133 years, including making tin and slate roofs for a time.

Joe Thaler was behind the counter for the last 49 of them. Around him stood 50 tons of stove parts -- 5,000 bins of parts from floor to the 16-foot ceiling.

"I needed a special kind of hinge once when I was renovating my house," said City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, whose district includes the old store. "They had piles of stuff, but Mr. Thaler went right to the part without blinking an eye. He was probably the only human alive who knew where that part was."

But the odd hinge, castings -- and every now and then a stove -- were not enough to keep the Thalers in business, not even when wood-burning stoves become trendy again in the 1970s.

Mr. Thaler suffered a stroke and a heart attack; longtime customers became leery of going into a changing neighborhood; and there wasn't enough business for the fifth generation -- Joseph Thaler Jr.

The company's building wasn't particularly elegant -- no one ever pushed all that hard to have it declared a historic building. The Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway inherited much of the Thaler office -- about 100 linear feet of old stove and plumbing catalogs -- and odd fixtures that are displayed from time to time.

Now, sitting in his car in front of the store, Mr. Thaler seemed untroubled by the rubble of what used to be: big shards of storefront glass shattered on the wooden floor, toppled shelving, bricks in a heap.

"The slum landlords always tried to chisel us for discounts, and every time they reminded me I'd mentally add 20 percent to the price," laughed Mr. Thaler. "But the only memory that really comes back to me is that this place was loaded with stoves and parts."

Just before driving away for the last time, he said: "I think my father and my grandfather would feel the same way I do -- we're done using it; tear it down and do something else."

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