Who to honor? City tries to decide Landmark: Lawyers oppose a plan to name a courthouse after longtime city comptroller Hyman Pressman

March 21, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Hyman Aaron Pressman's name was misspelled in a front-page article yesterday about naming a building in downtown Baltimore after the former city comptroller.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In his 28 years as Baltimore's financial watchdog, Hyman Aron Pressman loved igniting political controversy by exposing city waste, fraud and abuse. The colorful comptroller and poet politician enjoyed the limelight so much that he installed television lights in his City Hall office at his own expense for news conferences.

Now -- two years after his death and seven years after his retirement -- Pressman is again the focus of political debate, this time over a City Council bill to name the old post office and Circuit Courthouse at Courthouse Square after him.


The legislation is being challenged by a group of influential Baltimore lawyers, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who want the city landmark named after Chief Circuit Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman, who will soon retire after 37 years.

Although the legal community calls Pressman an effective comptroller and beloved city character, the building at 111 N. Calvert St. should be named for someone who served in the judiciary, they say.

"While I knew and respected Mr. Pressman as a distinguished citizen and very effective comptroller, nobody identified him with the court house,"Baltimore attorney Lewis A. Noonberg said. "It seems incongruous to name a courthouse after him."

The opposition has rallied dozens of Pressman's former friends and colleagues. Council members and city staff eulogize the zany, yet tight-fisted politician first elected in 1963 as ambassador of the "plain folk."

City Councilwoman Lois Garey of the 1st District introduced the Pressman bill, noting that before his election, Pressman served as an attorney often filing cases on behalf of city taxpayers.

"A courthouse is not just a place for lawyers and judges to practice," Garey said. "It is also where the common man comes to find justice and to be heard. Hyman Aron Pressman always made sure the issues of the common man were heard and protected."

Hammerman supporters have asked the council to delay voting on the bill so they can gather support for their cause. Hammerman has become a city legend for his formation 52 years ago of The Lancers, a young men's leadership group whose influential alumni include Schmoke, the city's former state's attorney.

Schmoke and Hammerman were out of town at conferences yesterday and could not be reached for comment. But Hammerman supporters say renaming the court building for the judge would be the best reward for a man who has selflessly helped thousands of city children become leaders.

"There are many men who are leaders in this community because of Judge Hammerman," said City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who supports the Hammerman dedication. "Clearly, for a judge who has dispensed so much justice in this city, naming the building after him would be fitting."

Pressman supporters note that he also had a strong tie to the building. It was under his tenure that the city negotiated the purchase of the $3.5 million property from the federal government for $1.

Schmoke's administration is pushing an alternative that would name the Board of Estimates room at City Hall after Pressman. During his seven terms as comptroller, he served as administrator of the board.

"I don't see it as a battle," Holton said. "I see it as an opportunity to find a compromise to honor both men."

But Pressman admirers don't appear likely to back down. During a recent hearing on the matter, Pressman's longtime assistant and protege, Erwin A. Burtnick, read from his boss' 1977 book of poetry, which may have foreshadowed the current debate:

"Dedicated to prudent voters, who chose me over crafty floaters, by choosing me they show the brains to plug the leaks and clean the drains. They cast their votes in wholesome lot and now they're stuck with what they got."

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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