Thomas A. Rowley, owner of Irish bar on W. Pratt St.

December 08, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Thomas A. Rowley, the elfin proprietor of a West Pratt Street bar that has been in his family since the Civil War, died of heart failure Thursday on his 80th birthday at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Still behind the bar as recently as Thanksgiving week -- and living up to his policy of buying the first round for regulars -- Mr. Rowley spent all but three years living above the bar and recently confessed that he opened up the joint only when he felt like it.

While his visage led to many a comparison to the map of Ireland, Mr. Rowley refused to open on St. Patrick's Day because: "I can't stand the Irish when they're drinking."

Rowley's was likely the only gin mill in Baltimore to serve drinks on hand-crocheted doilies. The bar had no sign because Mr. Rowley refused to pay the city a fee to put one up. A small brass plaque on the front door reads: Thos. A. Rowley. Beers and Wines. And a green traffic light attached to the second floor signaled when the bar was open for customers. When it was off, one had to look elsewhere for a brew.

It was his habit to open the bar in the late afternoon and close around midnight when he got tired. Despite the irregular hours, Mr. Rowley drew a diverse crowd of neighborhood regulars, doctors, students, lawyers, truck drivers and other denizens of the night.

A quaint and quirky Formstone rowhouse with glass-block windows at Pratt and Schroeder streets, Rowley's featured a collection of mirrors dating to the turn of the century, a red rug, no jukebox and no cigarette machine. The bar measured no more than 16 feet by 50 feet.

It was established by his great-uncle, Patrick Healy in 1862. In those days, the busy nearby shops surrounding the Mount Clare station of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad provided plenty of business.

In was in this neighborhood that Mr. Rowley was born in a Pratt Street rowhouse. In 1934 he graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School in nearby Irvington, where he lettered in baseball.

After studying law for two years at the University of Baltimore, he took a job as an office boy at USF&G and worked his way up to supervisor.

In 1947, he was making $5,000 a year when he decided to give up his business career to run the family bar.

When his mother, Delia, died in 1977, he closed the bar for a year. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he closed for two weeks and used to shut down for entire summers because the saloon wasn't air-conditioned and he loathed the folks who complained about it.

But no one could bellyache about his prices, with most beer going for a buck.

"His prices weren't even in the 20th century," said Pat Moran, Mr. Rowley's cousin. "He had to be one of the last of the old school of Irish bartenders. He was a jolly, good fellow who loved the camaraderie of the neighborhood."

One rule in the bar was to be strictly observed, and any violation could earn a miscreant permanent banishment: no foul language.

Depending upon Mr. Rowley's mood, he would have the offender apologize with all forgiven or dispense with a one-way ticket to the curb.

"He loved young people and was determined to run a clean and comfortable place," said the former Frances Kessler, 35, a federal government lawyer who became Mr. Rowley's bride two years ago.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, Poppleton and Hollins streets, Baltimore.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a sister, Eleanor Reuling of Arbutus.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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