FOR YEARS, THE old Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube in Baltimore was home to Dantini the Magnificent, an eccentric magician well known for his card tricks and ability to make objects disappear.
Now the building where Dantini performed is itself in danger of vanishing -- the latest victim of a general post-recession onslaught against aging buildings throughout downtown Baltimore.
Owners of the vacant bookstore-and-tavern at 913 N. Charles St. notified the Schmoke administration this spring that they plan to seek permission to raze the building.
If they receive the permit, it would mark the end of a local landmark that for decades attracted musicians, poets, artists, Beatniks and other colorful patrons, including such notables as writers H. L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Because the building is in the Mount Vernon historic district, however, any permit application must be approved by Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation before demolition can begin.
The commission has scheduled a public hearing to discuss the Peabody property at 1: 30 p.m. May 31 at 417 E. Fayette St.
At a board meeting Tuesday, directors of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association voted to oppose the demolition. They want the owners to find a way to save at least the Charles Street facade and fix up or reconstruct the building behind it.
"We don't want another parking lot. We don't want more of Charles Street to be destroyed," said association President Allen Golden. Mount Vernon representatives argue that three buildings already were demolished on the block for an office building that never materialized, and the book shop helps preserve what's left of the streetscape. "We don't want to leave any more gaping holes," said board member Ruth W. Rehfeld.
Aside from its architectural significance, the building is a rare bit of Baltimoreana that has been associated with many famous and near-famous people.
The shop was opened in 1913 by a book peddler who named it after the Peabody Conservatory. It was acquired in 1920 by Siegfried and Hugo Weisberger, who expanded it to include a coffee room. One regular customer was Mencken, the Evening Sun columnist, who suggested the place needed a bar in the back. That gave rise to the Siegfried Stube [room], which Mencken and his friends frequented for many years.
In 1957, the building was acquired by Rose B. Hayes, who operated it until her death in 1986. During her tenure, it looked like a musty antique shop, except that it had bars on two levels and became a popular nightspot after dark.
Its longtime magician-in-residence -- Vincent Cierkes, aka Dantini the Magnificent -- claimed he knew Harry Houdini. His shows alternated with performances by Max Rathje, a violinist who was reputed to know the favorite song of every regular customer.
After Hayes' death, the building and its contents were acquired by a local group that wanted to build an office complex next door. The group was headed by principals of two companies that would have occupied the new building: PersonaCare Inc., a health care company, and Cochran, Stephenson and Donkervoet (CS&D), an architecture firm.
That group razed buildings from 921 to 925 N. Charles St. to make way for the new offices and said the book shop would house its general contractor. But it never obtained financing for the project and subsequently sold the land to the Maryland Club for parking.
PersonaCare merged with another company and no longer has headquarters in the city. CS&D moved its offices to the Warehouse at Camden Yards. Architect Richard Donkervoet referred questions to associate Jim Duncan, who could not be reached.
The Peabody building recently was condemned because its north wall is bulging. But Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the city's preservation commission, said the condemnation notice "doesn't mean the building has to be torn down."
While demolition may be one option, the owners also could correct the structural defects so the building can be reoccupied, she said. "They just have to make it safe."
Malcolm Mason, who heads the neighborhood's architectural review committee, said he would be concerned about the stability of other buildings on the block if 913 goes. "I'm afraid of what it's going to do to 911," he said.
Founder of the Architectural Restoration and Preservation Information Center, Mason suggested that the owners at least try to preserve the Charles Street facade and rebuild the western third of the 150-foot-deep Peabody building, if it's too costly to save the entire structure, and use the rest of the land for parking.
"A small office building with an antique shop in front might be very attractive" to prospective tenants, he said.
Pub Date: 5/23/96