The end of the old downtown

Baltimore Glimpses

January 10, 1995|By Gil Sandler

PEOPLE PASSING THE intersection of Charles and Lexington streets on the morning of Jan. 6, 1961, were forced to do a double take.

After taking in the scene, their questions probably included: Is that Baltimore Mayor J. Howard Grady seated in the cab of that tall crane? Why is a crane poised to knock down the 76-year-old O'Neill's Department Store? What high school band is playing "Baltimore Our Baltimore"? Something must be going on. But what?

It was the beginning of Charles Center and what would become known as Baltimore's renaissance, and the end of old downtown Baltimore.

For months after the small ceremony, the wrecking ball was busy. Among those to fall were: O'Neill's, the Century and Valencia theaters, Miller Brothers restaurant, The Sun's building, the wholesale houses in the first few blocks of South Hanover Street. In their place would rise the new gleaming downtown, with its office buildings, residential towers, promenades, plazas and fountains.

But passersby probably were annoyed at the traffic tie-ups caused by the ceremony, not in awe of the historic moment.

But ceremony participants were eager to participate. The Glenelg High School Band performed several selections and then gave a drum roll to signal the demolition crew to send the wrecker's ball smashing into the north wall of O'Neill's. A shower of bricks, plaster, wood, glass and metal shards spilled onto the sidewalk and into the street. That was it for that day; the real demolition began a day later.

At the time, few people appeared to be interested in the renovation of downtown. But that little ceremony was really the first truly visible proof that downtown was changing. It was the first step to getting all of those gems that we now take for granted -- the National Aquarium, the Convention Center, Harborplace, the Maryland Science Center, the hotels, etc.

A key player in getting Charles Center built was J. Jefferson Miller, a $1-a-year retired department store executive. There's a plaque honoring him near Charles Center, and that's just about all that's left to remind one of that long ago morning when Baltimore's downtown renaissance began.

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