Behavior in medical building was an art children had to learn

January 11, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

THE CERAMIC-TILE corridors in the 1925 Medical Arts Building forever smelled of antiseptic touched with a splash of cloves. This beehive of medical practice -- dentistry in particular -- was far different from today's breezy and casual, feel-good environments and state-of-the-art equipment.

The formality of that building, which remains in full use today at Cathedral and Read streets, was a metaphor for the way we lived in 1950s Baltimore. The baby boomers had yet to uproot the formalities of the older order. And the doctors who practiced within the Medical Arts corridors liked it just that way.

The clientele -- should I say patients? -- often arrived by taxicab. Indeed, there always seemed to be a line of waiting Suns, Yellows and Diamonds along this medical temple's Read Street curb.

There was a doorman who wore a braided coat and plenty of porters scurrying about the first floor's Vermont marble corridors. Someone always seemed to be polishing the brass railings. Today we'd consider it curious, but you had to go up a few steps to enter the lobby. I recall those steps giving me trouble after a particularly painful tooth extraction -- I was the brave one who said, "No, don't knock me out. I might talk in my sleep."

The lobby had some unintentionally comic aspects. On the ground floor were show windows displaying surgical girdles, prosthetic devices and orthopedic garments. This fashion show of trusses and bandaged underpinnings enlarged my inexperienced eye more than any optometrist's drops.

The patients were serious about being punctual for their appointments. Facing the elevator bank was a Postal Telegraph clock. You could hear it click above the clank of the elevator cables. That clock was supposed to give the precise time.

If you were running late, you could blame the elevator operators. Those manually operated cars had a life of their own. They were normally full of passengers, as this was a busy destination.

No matter what the age of the those passengers, they all seemed to have a slightly worried look, perhaps indicating some dire diagnosis, costly tooth-repair bill or plain-out annoyance at taking the time to visit the doctor.

The lobby's directory listed the names of the physicians and dentists, blood labs and other medical specialists. But if you forgot your floor, it was just as easy to ask the elevator jockeys. They had worked there for years and knew the occupants well.

The corridors fascinated me. The building has something of a Y-shape. The doors to the medical suites were stained dark brown, with the doctors' names precisely lettered in paint on the frosted glass panels. There was also a back stairway fitted with illuminating gas jets. The dental waiting room was puritanically clean and orderly. The artwork consisted of ancient, heat-faded Purnell Gallery etchings of the cathedrals of Old Europe.

My mother's dentists were the Drs. Browning -- Balthis and Douglas -- who shared a suite but had different phone numbers. Each wore a starched white tunic and had little time for playfulness from a 6-year-old. I was on strict orders to grin and bear whatever had to be done. There were to be no outbursts, tears or misconduct.

The Brownings were not young men when I was 6 years old. Some of their machines looked old and could have frightened Vincent Price and the entire prop-department staff at Universal Pictures. The thought of being laced up under those things made me comply with the no-tears (well, very few) rule.

Perhaps the most set-you-straight aspect of a visit to the the Drs.Browning was a young nurse I knew as Miss Helen. She and my mother developed a good friendship -- so much so that one evening while on vacation in Rehoboth Beach my mother announced we were driving to Ocean City to visit her. This smacked of a trip to the Medical Arts, because I knew Miss rTC Helen would cut no slack about eating sweets on the Boardwalk.

Miss Helen monitored all office and dental-chair behavior and issued reports worthy of a stern judge, St. Peter or a prickly IRS auditor. She was hard to please. If you didn't squirm in the chair, you hadn't brushed enough. She could silence emotional outbursts with one sharp look.

I was the oldest of six, and for the most part my siblings and I were not blessed with strong teeth. Dr. Browning did his best. So did my mother and Miss Helen.

My mother knew when it was time to cut the medical tension. Once we were out of the office, there was mad dash to see who could press the elevator button first. Then, at the very least, we all piled into the Medical Arts Pharmacy for lunch. It had a marvelous soda fountain now in the Baltimore Museum of Industry. And if all went very well, Mom might spring for a lunch upgrade -- the Woman's Exchange or, the top of the heap, the Belvedere Hotel coffee shop.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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