Retail site reborn as residence

Renewal: Planners and developers are hoping the transformation of the former Hecht Co. into an apartment building will accelerate west-side revitalization.

September 26, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The former Hecht Co. department store building at Howard and Lexington streets - once a symbol of Baltimore commerce and more recently of urban decay - now stands as a test case for the ambitious revitalization of downtown's west side.

The eight-story edifice has reopened as high-ceilinged apartments, the first tangible sign of a broader attempt to repackage the struggling area and, like a big red-tag sale, lure people back.

Ultimately, success of the 173-unit Atrium, and to a degree the west-side project, may ride on how many Michel Lettres walk through the door.

"I'm looking at it as being an adventure," said Lettre, 52, who moved in Sept. 14. Drawn partly by family ties to the building and a belief in the state's Smart Growth policy of investing in developed areas, Lettre also revels in the idea of being an urban pioneer on Howard Street.

"It's an opportunity to see how the area evolves over the next few years," he said. "A little risk is attractive."

That kind of risk is not so attractive, however, to developer David H. Hillman, president of Southern Management Co. He expected the planned Hippodrome Theater restoration and the Centerpoint residential and retail complex nearby to be further along. Even if the ailing economy does not derail those projects, both are at least a year away.

"I'm ahead of the pack. I'm not happy. I feel like the Lone Ranger, and I didn't sign up for that," said Hillman. Yet he is enthusiastic about his handiwork. Pointing to one unit, he proclaimed, "This is probably the best apartment in the building. It's got light everywhere."

City officials say they understand Hillman's concerns but predict the $15 million project will succeed. "It's significant and gutsy, but we think it will do fine," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

In some ways, Hillman is not so alone. A few west-side residential projects are in the final stages. The former Congress Hotel on West Franklin Street will have 36 apartments. So will the "Y" building at the corner of Charles and Saratoga streets.

The much larger Atrium may be a catalyst, said BettyJean Murphy of Savannah Development Corp., which is converting the "Y" building. "It just enhances us," she said. "If those units are great, we're going to get more people interested in being downtown."

Lettre knew he wanted to live in or near downtown. With his marriage ending and two grown daughters out on their own, he made plans to leave Owings Mills for the city he used to call home.

But where to go? Canton intrigued him, but it was already established. Early this year, he saw the Atrium, a transformation made possible by historic preservation tax credits. He liked the 11-foot ceilings, the 5-by-8-foot windows.

He liked the idea of walking or taking light rail to work on West Preston Street, where he is assistant secretary in the Maryland Department of Planning. He saw a tie-in with his agency's Smart Growth philosophy.

Lettre's personal connection exerted a pull as well. His grandfather, Abraham Bernheimer, and great-grandfather, Herman Bern- heimer, were department store owners who decided in the mid-1920s to erect the building at the corner of Howard and Lexington, then the center of Baltimore's retail district.

Bernheimer Brothers, a bargain emporium that used a pet monkey and other gimmicks to entice customers, had merged in 1923 with the Leader Store. The combined business decided it needed a modern outlet, and in 1925 Bern- heimer-Leader's new $1.5 million home opened.

The company struggled, however, and in 1927 it sold out to the May Co. In 1959, the department store got yet another name after May merged with the Hecht Co. It stayed so for decades, even as suburban malls stole business. In 1989, with the area resembling a ghost town, Hecht's closed its flagship store.

Through all the changes, Lettre grew up thinking of the Hecht Co. building as "my grandfather's building" and was the first to sign up as a new resident. But since he wouldn't be living there by himself, he needed approval from his new partner, Cassi Bassolino, a Web designer from Manhattan Beach, Calif., whom he met on the Internet. She quickly gave it.

"I really like to be part of anything that's new and innovative," she said after a tour of their corner two-bedroom apartment, decorated with a rose theme. "This will be a really cool place."

Bassolino needed some features, such as high-speed Internet access, and appreciated others, including the view of downtown and the ability to get around without a car. (All 173 apartments overlook either the street or an interior courtyard, which workers carved out of the building's center.)

Even before they spent a night in their sixth-floor apartment - where bedding and furniture were once sold, former Hecht Co. employees recall - the couple explored downtown on walks to theaters and North Charles Street restaurants.

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