Protection, with a catch

Martick's: The building might be saved, but its owner's days may be numbered.

July 13, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A lamp atop the bar sports a pair of inch-long pink plastic baby dolls dangling from wires. The dining room is decorated with snakeskin wallpaper, stained glass, a hubcap, a bowling ball and photos of the restaurant when it was one of Baltimore's best-known bohemian hangouts in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Martick's Restaurant Francais at 214 W. Mulberry St. is one of 262 buildings that could be saved from demolition as part of a proposed city agreement to preserve the historic character of the west side of downtown.

The former speak-easy - which still has a peephole beside the front door - was one of the properties that city ordinances in June 1998 and May 1999 marked for possible condemnation as part of the city's $350 million project to rebuild the struggling area.

In response to protests that the urban renewal project would wipe away too many treasures like Martick's, Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration is negotiating a pact this month with a state agency that would preserve many of the buildings threatened under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

But the pact with the Maryland Historical Trust has a catch: It would save buildings, but not the people who earn their livings in them. Dozens of business owners face possible eviction as the city takes their buildings and sells them to developers for renovation.

Fans of Martick's argue that if the 137-year-old, Victorian-style building is worth saving, so is its 77-year-old owner.

Morris Martick still lives on the second floor of the building where he was born in 1923. He crafted the restaurant's tables and some of its stained-glass windows by hand. Although the crowds have dwindled in recent years, he still works as the restaurant's cook, manager, waiter and bartender.

Quirky, independent businesses like his are the kind of places that give cities an advantage over suburban areas often dominated by generic-looking chain stores and restaurants, said John Murphy, an attorney representing area merchants threatened by displacement.

Perched on a ripped bar stool on a recent afternoon, Martick contemplated the ambiguity of his situation as he slid his hand over his bald head.

"I've become a legend," he said. "Unfortunately, it's a dying legend."

Martick said he's glad to hear that the city may designate his building for preservation. But he's still galled that the city marked his building - which his parents bought in 1921 - for possible condemnation.

Even though city officials have told him they won't kick him out, he said the June 1998 ordinance listing his address seems to contradict that.

"At least it looks like my building and its heritage will be preserved," said Martick. "That's good. But ... I'm really thinking that it's time to retire. The odds against me are stacking up. The iceberg is coming."

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said that despite the city ordinance allowing the city to take control of the property, he's made a promise that the city won't kick Martick out as long as he's running his restaurant and keeping his building in good condition.

"Mr. Martick has been running a fine establishment and we don't want to disturb him," said Brodie. "And we also feel that his building is historic and worth preserving."

Any construction in Martick's section of the west-side redevelopment area is likely to be years off. State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a West Baltimore Democrat, is leading a group of legislators studying a six-block area around and including the restaurant for a possible African-American nightclub and entertainment district.

Martick was one of five children of a pair of Polish immigrant shopkeepers who made most of their money during Prohibition by selling bootleg gin and whiskey, which they kept hidden beneath the floorboards in the bathroom.

During the 1940s and 1950s, his family ran a well-known jazz club in the building that featured the paintings of local artists on the walls and attracted Billie Holiday, Leonard Bernstein and others.

"I remember when it was packed every night, with lines of people waiting to get in that would sometimes go around the block," said drummer Tylden Streett, who played at Martick's in the 1950s.

Martick ran unsuccessfully in 1966 for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. Campaigning on a slogan of "foot power instead of mouth power," he marched from West Mulberry Street to Annapolis as a publicity ploy.

The next year, he closed down what was then his bar and spent a few years traveling Europe. When he returned, he rebuilt Martick's as a French restaurant. After a rough start in 1970 - during which his French chef quit - Martick taught himself to cook and earned praise in newspaper reviews as a creative and talented chef.

The menu features bouillabaisse, mussels in white wine sauce, Persian chicken and blackened lamb. But visitors must ring a buzzer beside the always-locked door and wait for Martick to check them out through the peephole before they can enter.

Jimmy Rouse, head of the Historic Charles Street Association and a waiter at Martick's from 1974 to 1981, said Martick has contributed to the city's cultural life not only through his cooking but also by creating a place where artistic people could feel comfortable in a culturally conservative town.

"He's wonderfully spontaneous and creative and has a great sense of humor," Rouse said. "I remember people would walk into the restaurant and say, `Morris, what do you recommend?' And he'd say, `I'd recommend another restaurant. Or you could stay here. At least there's a hospital located nearby.'"

Rouse laughed. "In his own way, he's one of Baltimore's living geniuses."

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