Bright future could shine in old Stewart's building Rebirth: The glorious department store could see a new life.

Way Back When

December 26, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

I was snapping up half-price Christmas ornaments as the word spread around the old Stewart's department store that it would be closing in a few weeks. It was the last days of 1978, and all I could think about was bagging enough blown-glass snowmen and ice castles to replace those that had smashed when that year's tree suffered an unfortunate Christmas night plunge.

It fell the morning of Dec. 26 into a shattered mess of glass and balsam needles. I consoled myself with the thought that the Stewart's sale would take some of the sting out of the situation.

Now, some 20 years later, comes the word that officials of the Weinberg Foundation plan to pour $71 million into the Stewart's block, most of it going into the glorious old store building, the one with enough fancy columns to make it the wedding cake of Baltimore department stores.

Is there a Baltimorean over 40 who doesn't have some sort of memory of the corner of Howard and Lexington streets when its four busy department stores (plus a fifth, Brager-Gutman's on Lexington Street) gave downtown the feel of a bustling city center?

Even 20 years ago it was evident how this part of Baltimore was in trouble. The 1970s were the decade that proved, beyond any doubting, that the pull of the suburban shopping centers was too much for Howard Street.

Though my own family remained steadfast Howard and Lexington people (we were not drivers), virtually all our friends abandoned the area and its rich mercantile array. Baltimoreans seemed to prefer the dull but efficient suburban locations.

Baltimoreans, ever a curious lot, are sentimental about fTC old-fashioned spots like Howard and Lexington, but fast to change their allegiances when it is financially expedient or convenient.

They also have the depressing tendency to give up on the older parts of the city, abandoning hope for them when they are not openly hostile to an ever-changing Baltimore.

The late Harry Weinberg bought the old Stewart's building (it was the second store to close and followed Hochschild's 1977 downtown demise) at the same going-out-of-business sale where I bought the Christmas ornaments. At the time, he said he had a good feeling about Howard and Lexington, a sentiment I've always shared.

Now the people who run his foundation feel the time is right to restore Howard Street, with a renovated Stewart's Building, a block of new apartments and a garage at Liberty Street.

Their $71 million proposal carries a down side. Some existing and very hard-working merchants could be displaced from the buildings where they still toil to make a dollar.

One of those affected is Nam George Koo, whom I met a few days ago. I was mightily impressed at his ingenuity at building his New York Fashion clothing store's warehouse within the balcony and upper reaches of the old New Theatre on Lexington Street, the same place where I saw "The Ten Commandments" and "The Sound of Music" in their first runs. Koo is an asset to any shopping area and it would be a mistake to choke him out.

On the other hand, the old Stewart's Building is all but vacant (there are small merchants on the ground floor) and it should be the people place it once was, the home of hundreds of working people.

Those local nay-sayers -- there are a lot of them in Baltimore, and their negative cries are especially loud along Howard Street -- should tour some of the other places in Baltimore where businesses have moved away, but have been replaced by new thinking and new money.

I refer to the former American Can Co. building on Canton's Boston Street that reopened earlier this month. Surrounded by shops and new restaurants, with many filled offices upstairs, it is a tremendous asset to Southeast Baltimore and the region at large.

The can building was the work of Baltimore builder C. William Struever. He has also been suggested as the builder who will turn Stewart's around for the Weinberg Foundation. American Can, like Stewart's, had sat lifeless for years. The can company now has been transformed into a busy place where hundreds of workers draw weekly checks. The same can happen at Stewart's.

Pub Date: 12/26/98

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