Westminster preserved in pictures A historical exhibit shows city's buildings in photos, postcards

December 27, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

The steeple of St. John's Roman Catholic Church stretches to the sky above East Main Street. The Main Court Inn awaits a wedding reception or a party of prominent Westminster citizens. The Western Maryland Railroad Station stands ready for passengers on the morning train to Baltimore.

The buildings, part of Westminster's face at the start of the 20th century, have been demolished. But they're preserved in old photographs and postcards, copied and mounted for display at City Hall.

Historian and genealogist George A. Billingslea was chairman of a committee of seven local collectors who spent two years sorting through about 250 postcards and photographs to select 60 for the permanent exhibit. The committee chose photographs and postcards of commercial or public buildings as more recognizable than houses.

"The history of any given thing is in multiple newspapers and books and magazines, and nobody has the opportunity to tie it all together," Billingslea said. "If those of us who are interested don't do it, it will be more difficult 20, 30 or 40 years from now."

The beginning of the 20th century "was the time of the people who influenced the development of Westminster," he said.

Entrepreneurs such as George W. Albaugh and his partner Thomas Babylon, co-owners of Albaugh and Babylon Grocery Co., a wholesale business, and Jesse Reifsnider, co-founder of the city's first lumberyard, were building their businesses and the local economy.

The city was lively. It had passenger rail service, six or seven hotels serving travelers to Baltimore and a Main Street that by 1910 boasted a tar-and-chip surface.

Fortunately, the period between 1880 and 1920 also was a time when people sent postcards as casually as they dash off e-mails today. Collectors pay an average of $6 apiece for scenes of the city such as "an aeroplane view of Western Maryland College" or telephone operators lined up at a switchboard.

Billingslea, 75, has a trove of Westminster history stored in his memory. He suggested the exhibit after volunteering several years ago to copy a portrait of Col. John K. Longwell, who built the mansion that is now City Hall. It hangs in the mayor's office.

He remembers eating dinner in City Hall when it was the home of his grandfather Albaugh, who bought it in 1908 from the Longwell estate. Billingslea bought ice cream cones as a child from Koontz Creamery at Liberty and Green streets. When he was in his teens, Baltimore adopted an ordinance requiring that all milk sold in the city be pasteurized there, prompting Koontz to move its operation to Baltimore.

Billingslea got his elementary education at Graceland School -- a mansion at 154 E. Green St. that is used for apartments. He went sledding in winter from the top of the Longwell Avenue hill down across a field that is now the city parking lot. On a good day, the sleds didn't stop until they reached the railroad track.

Westminster collector Stewart Zendgraft, a retired carpenter, recalls hanging out with friends in a shoe-repair shop at the Main Court Inn. Trucking doomed the hotels, he said. Travelers no longer stopped overnight in Westminster with their wagons.

A service station occupies the site of the Main Court Inn. Zend-graft helped demolish the Eastern Hotel, which stood in the 200 block of E. Main St. During the Depression, he rented a room at the Montour House in the first block of W. Main St. The building is used for apartments.

Billingslea began managing a Westminster hotel, the Charles Carroll at 117 E. Main St., in 1947.

"All the salesmen came and stayed, so I was full four nights a week," Billingslea said. But hotel management was a seven-day, 24-hour job, and after eight years, he gave it up.

Like the wagon travelers, the salesmen eventually stopped coming. The Charles Carroll building is an operations center of adjacent Union National Bank.

In the face that Westminster will present to the 21st century, the railroad station is gone, demolished in 1955. Hahn's butcher shop left a building in the 200 block of E. Main St. to become Hahn's of Westminster on Route 27. The Westminster library sits on the site of St. John's Roman Catholic Church, which was demolished in the early 1970s after being condemned.

But some features of the city are unchanged. The arch at the entrance to Western Maryland College still beckons visitors. Also, the exterior of the former armory, now the Longwell Municipal Center, is unchanged since the 1930s.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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