Sharp eye helps spot traces of old Baltimore

April 15, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

WHENEVER I SURVEY the local geography I always try to spot some relic that has managed to survive the upheaval of waves of construction and rebuilding.

For example, when I walk along downtown streets, I hunt out the manhole covers left from the high-pressure system. These are now about 90 years old and have iron stars on them -- like an artfully embellished coin. The high-pressure service was just that -- water designed to shoot up like geysers from special underground pipes to be used when a skyscraper caught fire.

The system was put in after the 1904 fire. Not once did I see it used.

There are few traces of the decades when some privileged Baltimoreans rode in horse-drawn carriages.

One such remnant, on Calvert Street between Center Stage and St. Ignatius Church, is a marble block at the curb.

This was a stepping block designed to speed the religiously observant to their pews -- or Sunday suppers.

Change runs through the suburbs as surely as the oldest parts of the city.

There's one constant in Towson: the stone abutments for the old Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad at York Road near the county library.

Rail and streetcar survivors abound here. Is there a street in Baltimore where the buried streetcar rails don't pop out in the summer's heat? Half the traffic signals are supported by trolley wire poles.

And there are some good chunks of the county seat's commercial palaces left, too -- Hutzler's department store (now a Barnes & Noble) and the old Stebbins Anderson coal yard.

Walking along Howard Street in downtown Baltimore can be an emotional downer because of the way it looks and the lack of the busy shops and department stores we Baltimoreans once thought of as the heart of the city.

Despite years of weathering, a painted sign for Bernheimer Leader, a store that disappeared in 1927, still clings to the bricks high above Fayette and Howard streets.

Another urban survivor is a set of mountain lake murals -- really advertising art -- at the northwest corner of Howard and Baltimore streets. These signs were part of Litte Joe's, a sporting goods and outdoor-wear emporium of 1920.

Or, better yet, take a look at the One Stop convenience store at 23 N. Howard St. It was once a Kreuger's Restaurant and has an interior filled with Arts and Crafts tilework. (Look fast, there are many forces at work to sterilize and rebuild this neighborhood.)

Consultants, architects and sales agents for something called street furniture have done their best to prettify Fells Point with fake bricks and reproduction, tinny lamp posts.

The trick to finding some original, non-restored parts of Baltimore's oldest surviving neighborhood is to pull back a bit from the place where the money in the 1970s and '80s was channeled.

If you look, you can see the numbers for outdoor market stalls carved on Broadway's granite curbs. These were the places that merchants rented on the market days.

The people who like to see reproduction streetlights and trash cans tend to be the same ones who hate authentic old signs. It practically takes an act of the City Council to retain an old sign where it belongs, particularly if it has some interesting neon lighting on it.

That is, unless you tear down a square block and build a 40-story building. Then, of course, your corporate logo will be welcomed.

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