Historic Schenk Co. button shop collapses Cast-iron-front building was to be part of proposed Hippodrome renovation

March 11, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Jacques Kelly | Peter Hermann and Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A venerable part of Baltimore's history collapsed in a gust of wind early yesterday, turning a noted button store built in the 19th century into a three-story pile of rubble.

Morton Schenk Co., the cast-iron-front building at 412 W. Baltimore St., was one of the city's oldest retail outlets still operating. It was to be part of a proposed restoration of the city's downtown theater district.

Damage forced engineers to condemn an adjacent structure at 414 W. Baltimore St., which also had a cast-iron front and was owned by Schenk, and city crews were expected to work through this morning's rush hour clearing 100 tons of debris.

The Schenk company supplied generations of local tailors with zippers, buttons, coat hangers and dry-cleaning supplies. The company used the four-story building next door as a warehouse.

"It's a tremendous loss for the city," said Fred Shoken, past president of the local architectural preservation group, Baltimore Heritage. "We only had 10 cast-iron fronts, and now two are gone. In one day, one-fifth of the cast-iron buildings here disappeared."

City housing officials blamed a combination of soaking rain and wind for sheering off the top of the Schenk building, known unofficially as the House of Buttons, and sending the rest tumbling to the ground. No one was injured in the 5: 30 a.m. collapse.

The owner of the buildings, Victor J. Schenk, did not comment yesterday. His father, Morton, began the business in 1928.

The Schenk building was a beloved Baltimore institution. Customers believed its ceiling-high shelves held virtually every kind of button that ever secured a collar or pair of pants.

"It was the only place in Baltimore that had that kind of inventory," said Philip Kahn, author of the 1989 history of Baltimore's garment industry, "A Stitch in Time."

The building at 414 W. Baltimore St. once served as the cigar-making business of August Mencken & Bro., newspaperman and writer H. L. Mencken's father and uncle.

The two buildings were among six that were to be preserved in a $35 million performing arts complex featuring a renovated Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street, one of the grand downtown theaters from the vaudeville era.

Under the plans, a two-story building at 410 W. Baltimore St. would be used to house dressing rooms, rehearsal areas and lounges. The buildings that collapsed yesterday were to be acquired and converted to a loading dock leading to the stage.

A project consultant, Kevin McAndrews, president of McAndrews Realty Advisors, said his clients had an option on the two buildings. He said yesterday's loss, while changing the face of West Baltimore Street, will help the Hippodrome project.

"Certainly no one is celebrating the demise of a couple of historic buildings, but this is good news as far as cost is concerned," McAndrews said.

City housing officials said no code violations were pending against the owner, but they said water had permanently damaged the structures.

Sandy Carnes, who lives in Hampden, stood outside the yellow caution lines and shook her head as she watched demolition crews at work. A neighbor had told her before Christmas that Schenk's was the perfect place to find special buttons to turn into small snowmen.

"I looked everywhere, but I couldn't find a place that had two white buttons of different sizes, one a little bigger than the other," Carnes said. "But I just didn't get here. I guess I won't get there now."

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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