When doctors' offices were deluxe

January 15, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

THE HEALTH maintenance organization and its beige-carpeted waiting rooms of today are far removed from the Victorian corridors and high-ceilinged chambers of the physicians I knew in the Baltimore of 40 years ago.

There are times when I have trouble recalling what ailed me, but I can picture those magnificent homes the 1880s and '90s-era aristocrats and merchant princes of Baltimore abandoned in the 1920s for the garden suburbs and horse country. They left behind the three-, four- and five-story chateaux of Park Avenue, Charles, St. Paul and Calvert streets, plus all the east-west thoroughfares in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

I guess the doctors rented the upper floors as apartments. They certainly used the lower one for their offices and labs.

There was a time when every house within a 10-minute walk of the Washington Monument seemed to have a brass plate on its facade. These metal rectangles announced many of the bone, skin, liver, teeth and general-health fixers of the era.

I recall one wintry day when Dr. Raymond Lenhard examined a shattered wrist of mine in what had been an old mortuary at St. Paul and Biddle streets. It was really a house designed by the famed architect Stanford White. It was a true palace built for railway technology mogul Ross Winans.

Baltimore can be unkind to the fortunes made in one era, money piles that collapse in another. The Winans mansion was a good example of robber-baron excess. It became the Girls Latin School, then a funeral home and later a doctor's office.

Its interior was dark and sober as a church. As kindly Dr. Lenhard extracted my arm from that cast, I looked out the window through its curious, bull's-eye glass and prayed his circular saw was headed in the right direction.

I used to fantasize at the St. Paul Street house where I used to go for blood tests. It had a glass front door, a door that was faced with a graceful iron tracery, very 1920s. To me, who had watched far too many episodes of "The Roaring Twenties" and "The Untouchables," it was the epitome of a Jazz Era city residence. I could imagine bathtub gin parties and cases of pre-war Hunter rye being consumed here.

And, if nothing else, thinking about more pleasant topics was preferable to having blood drawn.

Another beauty of this era was that the houses were not restored. They were pretty much lived in, without the benefit of architects, consultants and painting salesmen. If they looked a little shabby, so did the rest of the city.

The physicians who practiced in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of that era never seemed to have the furniture to match all the chandeliers, mantels, grand staircases and mirrors that the one-time dukes of Pratt Street had left behind.

What they lacked in this department they made up for in good humor and attention. I used to have my eyes examined by Dr. Roy Sholz at 11 E. Chase St. I was taken to him as a child. As a 36-year-old, my records were still listed under Master Jack Kelly.

A trip to the doctor's office often carried other rewards beside the blessing of good or improved health.

If I'd been let out of school at 1 p.m., it seemed silly to return for three minutes of class. So, why not have a late lunch at the old Hotel Belvedere coffee shop, provided someone else was along to pay the check?

That failing, there was a myriad of Charles Street shops and basement-level stores that could fill what remained of a medical afternoon nicely.

And, if nothing else, there was the chance to walk around the these once-grand streets in sooty 1960s Baltimore. So much remained of the Grover Cleveland era -- and seemed likely to be torn down -- that it made good sense to take it all in before the geniuses from the urban renewal board called in the wreckers.

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