Future apartments were once Bernheimer's Bargainville: Yes, it was Hecht's, and the May Co., but many Baltimoreans remember the downtown building's earlier incarnation.

June 13, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

Baltimoreans persist in referring to institutions by delightfully archaic names. I still hear people saying Baltimore Transit when they want MTA. The NationsBank tower (10 Light St.) will ever be Maryland National, the Mathieson Building or the Baltimore Trust Co. Take your pick.

The recent news that the old downtown Hecht Co. building, southwest corner of Howard and Lexington streets, may be made into apartments started my tongue stumbling over the names I've heard the place called: Bernheimer-Leader, the May Co., Hecht-May and lastly, the Hecht Co.

It was the first name, Bernheimer's, a name that I often heard in my youth, that brought a smile and a laugh to a vintage Baltimorean.

Of all the city's many department stores, it was an all-out bargain house, a place you shopped for price and zero prestige.

In fact, it was said that when the Bernheimer delivery wagon came to deliver your new living room set, you tipped the driver to park around the corner so your spying neighbors would not know -- then deride -- the origin of your purchases.

Bernheimer's could be the target of crude jokes. One of them, which had to do with the plate-glass front windows, won't be repeated here, but some people will know of what I chuckle.

Some years ago I heard of a garment immortalized in the local lexicon as a Bernheimer's Vest. This is a generic term -- meaning a useless bargain bought in haste and without benefit of common sense.

An ill fitting suit bought for $50 could qualify as a Bernheimer's Vest providing it was never used. Any stupid buy -- one snapped up in a wild moment of irrational spending -- could be a Bernheimer's Vest.

Bernheimer's was all about cut prices and bargain buying. Its ads filled columns of newspaper type and shoppers jammed its aisles, restaurant and basement. Ad copywriters used the term "Below the street, but above the average" to promote the downstairs store, where the goods were the cheapest. Bernheimer's also adhered to the European tradition of having a large meat and grocery department one flight down.

The present building that is due for apartment conversion opened in 1925 -- a rather roomy and impressive limestone-clad structure for what had started years earlier as a low-rent operation. Unfortunately, the building was soon an economic white elephant. Baltimoreans wanted cheapie bargains, not a fancy building with higher prices. The construction expense threw Bernheimer's into red ink. It made a hasty retreat from ignominious financial extinction by selling out quickly to a large national chain, the May Company, just two years after its fancy big store made its debut. The May Company then spent years erasing the Bernheimer stigma.

The Bernheimer failure wasn't the only economic embarrassment along Howard Street. Buried below the asphalt is the CSX railroad's (of course, we refer to it as the B&O) Howard Street Tunnel, a brick-lined tube that extended from Camden Yards to Mount Royal Station. When built in 1895, it threw the railroad into temporary receivership.

But both tunnel and department store proved to be more robust long-term economic investments. The store, under the May Co. ownership, ultimately prospered. And today, about 40 long and heavy freight trains still rumble through the 103-year-old tunnel, one of Baltimore's main rail arteries.

If and when the Hecht building is made into apartments, the tenants there will inherit a shopping bag's worth of retail history. If you walk along Howard Street today, there are but faded relics of the city's once flourishing retail palaces.

And indeed they were. In going through some of my mother's letters to her mother (away in Florida the winter of 1925), I found an account of a trip downtown. What did this 8-year-old write about? Live reindeer in Bernheimer's window.

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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