Baltimore Glimpses: Parking lot history

October 21, 1997|By Gilbert Sandler

The proposal has been floated to tear down the old financial district building at 131 E. Redwood St., the former home of USF&G Corp. and Baker Watts stock brokerage, to turn it into a parking garage.

This building will take its place with many other buildings in Baltimore that, over the years, have been knocked down and turned into parking garages (or lots), losing their battle with the insatiable maw of the automobile culture.

We leveled the old Sports Center ice rink at 6 E. North Ave. (between St. Paul Street and Charles Street) to make way for a parking lot. Until the late 1950s, many Baltimore youngsters skated there in its popular general sessions, but the rink was best known as the field of glory every Friday night in the winter season for high school ice-hockey teams.

Poly, City, Gilman, McDonogh, Forest Park, to mention some, made up the league. (An all-girls ice hockey league flourished there, too, but that is another story.)

We knocked down Ford's Theater on Fayette Street at Eutaw and erected a parking garage. From 1871 to the mid-1960s, Ford's was Baltimore's legitimate theater.

Known deservedly as the "Temple of Drama," it was here that Alfred Lunt played opposite Lynn Fontanne in "Elizabeth the Queen," Tallulah Bankhead appeared in "The Skin of Our Teeth," Humphrey Bogart and Judith Anderson starred in "Saturday's Children."

On its storied stage, Baltimoreans saw "Mister Roberts," "Blithe Spirit" and "Medea" and were entranced by performances of Julie Harris, Edward G. Robinson and Rosalind Russell.

The last performance was Feb. 2, 1964: Jerry Lester starred in "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum." Happily, the pain was softened with the opening of the Morris Mechanic Theatre.

When we knocked down the entire square block of Baltimore Street between Guilford and Holliday and converted it into one mega-garage, we sent to the dust bin of our history the revered Horn and Horn restaurant, which was unique in Baltimore legend and lore, dating from the early 1920s.

Eclectic clientele

What made it unique was its eclectic clientele (tycoons and judges sat next to strippers and hustlers from The Block and the politicos from nearby City Hall) and the waitresses' style of taking your order: No matter how complicated the order or how many people at the table, those waitresses never wrote anything down.

Moreover, it was said to be the only restaurant in town that was open seven nights a week, all night long.

We tore down, too, the majestic Stanley Theater at 516 N. Howard St. to get another parking lot. The Stanley was a movie palace. It had terrazzo marble floors inlaid with brass, winding staircases leading to balconies that were richly furnished with divans and maroon tapestries. High above in the theater was a huge Tiffany-cut chandelier with gold-leaf decoration -- a study in opulence from a bygone era. The Stanley met its fate on April 1965, when a wrecking ball without soul did its sordid duty.

We knocked down the celebrated Rennert Hotel, on the southeast corner of Liberty and Saratoga, and built a parking garage over the souls of the rich and the famous who came to Baltimore to visit. The hotel was H.L. Mencken's favorite.

"I ate lunch there every day from 1905 to 1915," he once reminisced. "Terrapin, oyster pie, chicken pie -- there were no a la's on the bill of fare. All straight plain stuff. But when the game laws stopped the Rennert from serving wild duck, that was a hard blow. They kept up the old custom, of serving seven oysters in a half dozen, 13 in a dozen. And good oysters, before the Maryland variety began to deteriorate."

Garden spot

We knocked down the building at 524 N. Charles St. that housed Malcolm's House and Garden Shop, a part of the street's storied shopping experience from the early 1920s into the 1950s (when the store moved to Reisterstown Road) to gain a parking lot.

The list is too long. The News-American building is now a parking lot. So is the site where McCormick's spice factory (with its lovely Tea Room) used to be. The former bus station at 217-221 W. Baltimore St., between Howard and Liberty, is now a parking garage.

As time goes on, we see more and more buildings demolished for parking lots, which are ultimately converted to four- and five-story parking garages. These parking garages and lots, so interruptive with their over-the-sidewalk entrances and exits, so ugly in form and design but so necessary to sustain urban life, also confuse and adulterate the urban landscape.

Whole sections of downtown vistas that once took in attractive and inviting shop fronts, movie marquees and interesting buildings that housed light manufacturing and wholesaling have been torn down. A parking lot or parking garage now figures in almost every view.

One can still welcome the additional parking spaces in the rTC planning stage that will be made available and that we undoubtedly need, while admitting to a sense of remorse that raw, look-alike parking facilities have taken the place of the likes of the memorable Stanley movie palace, the Horn and Horn restaurant and Ford's "Temple of Drama."

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, changing Baltimore.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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