Baltimore's Howard Street was shopping capital

September 15, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

IT WAS THE afternoon of Labor Day and I found myself in the elevator of what is now the Value City department store at the Westview Mall. I glanced around. There was that pink color, the shade Hutzler Bros. used to paint the walls of its department stores. This spot was, of course, a former Hutzler operation now occupied by a different store.

This time of the year, I especially think of Howard Street. It was here that you met your friends, bought your bedsheets and saw Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady."

It was the retail and entertainment center of Baltimore, the closest thing to the heart of the city. Is there a native Baltimorean over the age of 40 who can't remember the days of five competing, often distinctive department stores in the area? Or the tangle of taxi cabs and buses? Or the smell of hot dogs grilling at the lunch counters of what seemed like a dozen dime stores on Lexington Street, the busiest cross street to intersect the Big H.

Howard Street was a complex urban system where you could have a wig made and a corset repaired.

And it wasn't pretentious. It had work-a-day streetlights, police call boxes, traffic signals, trolley poles and trash cans. And it had people, of all classes and races.

I didn't realize it at the time. I got in on maybe the last great Christmas selling throng the street had. It was late in the in the holiday selling season of 1969, now nearly 30 years ago.

I made a last-minute trip to Howard Street to buy just one more gift. The first floor of Hutzler's department store was wall-to-wall people. It was so packed with humanity the place was humid and frantic.

I slipped out a revolving door as fast as I could. The outside show windows were full of mechanical displays of twirling angels, laughing Santas and hard-working elves. Everyone carried a paper shopping bag. More travelers boarded the transit buses that afternoon than take the Howard Street light rail today in a week.

You wouldn't starve on Howard Street. Along the way (between Camden Station and Read Street) were popular lunchrooms like Kruger's and Thompson's, a big delicatessen named Awrach & Perl, the Oriole cafeteria (locally owned) and several branches of Bickford's, the national cafeteria chain.

There was also the Virginia Dare tea room and its gilded sweets counter, soda fountains in the Read's drug store chain (one at Lexington, another at Franklin), Otto Schellhase's restaurant and Dunlap's Oyster House. This is not counting all the food offered at the department stores, their dining rooms and counters, plus many other small operations.

It had banks -- the Provident, Commonwealth and Calvert. For sports, there was the Recreation Bowling Lanes, once the largest bowling alley in Baltimore. In addition to the B&O Railroad stations (Camden and Mount Royal) there was Greyhound bus service at Centre Street.

If Baltimore ever had a theater district, it was at Howard and Franklin. Here were the old Academy of Music, Maryland and Auditorium. It is hard to think that composers Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert staged world premieres in Baltimore, at Howard Street playhouses.

The northern end of Howard Street is its least changed, Baltimore's curiosity cabinet known as Antique Row. It too has been beset by depressing vacancies.

What was the significance of Howard Street? It was the place where paths crossed and recrossed. And you never forgot about it.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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