Forty-three years ago, Baltimoreans were talking about the Dec. 27, 1954, closing of O'Neill & Co., the venerable downtown department store that had stood on the southwest corner of Charles and Lexington streets since 1882.
It had survived the Great Fire of 1904, the coming of suburban shopping centers and competition from other department stores. only shuttered its doors after its management had been unable to negotiate new leases on its buildings.
Today, there are still Baltimore homemakers who proudly
produce at holidays and other occasions linen tablecloths and ,, napkins bought by their mothers and grandmothers at O'Neill & Co. a half-century or more ago. O'Neill's, as Baltimoreans always called the store, was known as the purveyor of the finest linen goods in the city.
"O'Neill's had things that Hecht's and the other department stores simply didn't have," recalled Pat Trimp, a Charles Village resident, who shopped at O'Neill's but worked across the street in the credit department of the Hub department store.
A store of shops
Known as "The Store of Specialty Shops," O'Neill's attracted a clientele Trimp described as being definitely "Upper Charles Street and most certainly Guilford." Trimp still misses the store's dresses and millinery.
"I always thought O'Neill's had fantastic clothes, and I loved their hats, which I thought were always very stylish. They were certainly on the order and quality of hats you'd see in New York," she said.
The store's sales force was composed of an army of "misses" who became valued household associates. Miss Ida was in children's shoes, while Miss Lillie oversaw the linen department. Miss Mary was a shopper's companion whose taste in dry goods was so valued that her dominion was the entire store. She'd accompany a customer from department to department, pointing out goods that might be of interest.
"A grand dame would call Miss Katie and order a half dozen long white gloves for the winter's social season. Miss Katie knew what her customer wanted and the price. Mothers sent children with nurses to be attired, depending entirely on the sales lady's taste and discrimination," reported The Sun.
Began in 1882
The store was founded in 1882 by Thomas O'Neill, a big, red-headed, Irish immigrant from County Cavan, who arrived in Baltimore in 1866. He opened the store with a partner whom he quickly bought out.
O'Neill was a familiar figure to thousands of Baltimoreans as he stood at the door each morning at 8: 30 dressed in a black frock coat and striped trousers, welcoming the day's customers.
"He was the imposing man with the pince-nez glasses and bright red walrus mustache," said the newspaper.
O'Neill's store quickly prospered, expanding to four buildings on the site. It also had branches in London, Dublin and Paris, and its owner traveled abroad yearly to inspect and purchase the fine embroidered linens from Ireland, Spain, Switzerland and France that the store sold.
"His views toward customers were unique. He never regarded a cash customer as loyal. He preferred the buyer who charged purchases. As proof of his faith in the 'loyal customers,' he rendered his bills once every six months," said The Evening Sun.
As his wealth grew, O'Neill purchased an entire city block on the east side of Charles Street near Franklin Street, including the Wizard Motion Picture House. He built the Professional Building at Charles and Pleasant streets and became active in civic affairs.
The greatest challenge to O'Neill's store was the Baltimore Fire of 1904, when firefighters threatened to dynamite the store for a firebreak, and he begged for a little more time.
"A staunch Catholic, Mr. O'Neill believed that prayer saved his store when waves of flame threatened it," reported The Sun.
"He drove in a carriage rapidly to the Carmelite Convent at Biddle and Caroline streets, and, awakening the nuns, begged them to pray for the safety of his store. When he returned to it, he said, the wind had shifted and O'Neill's was saved. In after years, he would point to the black south wall of the store to prove his contention," said The Sun.
At his death in 1919, O'Neill left to the archdiocese of Baltimore a $7 million estate that by the 1950s had grown to $14 million. Some $8.5 million was used to construct the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, which was dedicated in 1959. The new cathedral was cheerfully referred to by wags as "O'Neill's Uptown."
The archdiocese set aside $3.5 million to build a new hospital. The sum had grown to $37 million by the time Good Samaritan Hospital was completed and received its first patients in 1968.
Bequeathed to workers
"When Mr. O'Neill died on April 6, 1919, he showed his appreciation of their services by bequeathing the business to the employees who had helped to make it," reported The Sun.
In 1928, the store was merged into Hahn Department Stores Inc. and at the time of its closing was part of the Allied Stores Corp.
The store was demolished in 1961 when it became part of the Charles Center urban renewal project.
Pub Date: 1/11/98