Treasure mixed with troubles

West-side buildings often contain history, but are in disrepair

March 31, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The tavern at 102 N. Liberty St. has the odd mixture of beauty and grime that makes the argument over whether to demolish it and other buildings as part of Baltimore's $350 million west-side urban renewal project as sticky as malt liquor on linoleum.

The top half of the Downtown Sports Exchange is an architectural treasure. Preservationists praise the neo-Gothic arches and arrow slits on the 1920s building, saying the ornate stone and brick shouldn't be torn down for a suburban-style chain store.

The bottom doesn't belong in a museum. The neon "BAR" sign has burned out, leaving only a bright B. Plywood is nailed over a shattered window beside a "MD Lottery Keno" sign. The dingy pink door lolls open, blaring the laughter of Jerry Springer's show onto the street.

It's one of the places that has state lawmakers debating this week whether developers planning to build on the west side of downtown should be required to win an agreement with a state preservation agency before demolishing buildings, or risk losing state funding for a key part of the project.

The largest development group, led by the Weinberg Foundation, has warned that granting the MD Historic Trust veto power over demolition of buildings like the one at 102 N. Liberty St. could make it impossible for them to build 350 apartments and 400,000 square feet of stores.

Foundation officials say they've already promised to preserve the six most historically valuable buildings in a six-block area bounded by Howard, Fayette, Clay and Liberty streets, including the former Stewart's and Kresge stores on Lexington street.

Preservationists are fighting to save 21 more of the 50 buildings in this area, many of which are a century old and feature ornate architectural details that help give Baltimore its charm.

They say they're only trying to make Baltimore's largest urban renewal project since the Inner Harbor more likely to succeed by using the architecture that gives the city an advantage over suburban blandness.

A walking tour of some of the buildings at the center of this disagreement reveals that many have plain-looking 1960s-era facades on the first floor and a kind of dingy glory on the peeling and vacant upper levels.

They also have merchants who can't compete with the Gap for pop-culture appeal, but who take great pride in selling everything from hair curlers to fresh-roasted pistachios, baptismal dresses, watercolor paintings, lake trout sandwiches, Bibles, beepers and beer.

`A place worth saving'

Inside the Downtown Sports Exchange Tavern, barmaid Mildred "Millie" Battle draws on a cigarette as she ponders a question.

The dimly lighted bar is not in good condition. Linoleum squares are loose on the floor beneath the hand-scribbled sign advertising Mickey's malt liquor for two dollars. The stair railing dangles where someone ripped it from the wall.

But Battle says old buildings like this one are worth preserving because they give Baltimore a unique look.

She adds that the landlord has no incentive to fix up the building as long as the city plans to demolish it.

"I know a lot of our regular customers would be very upset if this place were demolished," said Battle. "This is a real neighborhood bar. There is a lot of friendship and camaraderie here. This is a place worth saving."

Passion for peanuts

The sweet, oily smell of roasting peanuts drifts out of the air ducts of the Peanut Shoppe at 101 W. Lexington St. and lets passers-by know they're near Lexington Market.

The front of the 130-year-old Victorian building looks as if it hasn't much changed since the shop opened in the 1930s. "Specializing in Imported and Domestic Nutmeats," reads the sign, beneath a facade decorated with stonework flowers.

Inside, customers line up near a frier gurgling and sputtering with peanuts. They head out digging their hands into paper bags of cashews, pistachios, salted Brazils, almonds, pecans, Spanish nuts, macaroons and jelly beans.

An antique steel roaster thrums in the back. It looks like a silver barrel, decorated with Mr. Peanuts wearing top hats and monocles, tumbling and rolling over a flame.

Business has been dropping for the last few years, and the owners have said they may move a few blocks east to Charles Street -- regardless of an invitation by the Weinberg Foundation to return after it builds its retail and apartment complex.

Harry Thames, a 33-year-old worker at the Baltimore Convention Center, said any rebuilt Lexington Street wouldn't be Lexington Street without the aroma of roasting nuts.

"It would be a shame to tear this place down," said Thames, as he clutched paper sacks of pistachios and cashews. "It's a kind of monument a monument to aroma."

Building has served many

A block west past flowering cherry trees and sidewalk bins full of shoes, toilet paper and shampoo for sale is the Young World children's clothing store at 201-211 W. Lexington St.

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