Work at Stewart's building recalls a bustling time

November 03, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

I slipped away one morning this week to the corner of Howard and Lexington streets, an address that once possessed the geographic recognition of today's Baltimore Beltway or I-95. It was the home of Baltimore's department stores, the place where so much of the city mixed, shopped, went to movies or just wasted time hanging out.

I've had readers ask me why I obsess so much about this part of Baltimore. The simple reason is that I was dragged here quite a bit as a child -- made to sit out sessions while my elders selected hats and dressmaking patterns or ordered me to try on pants and suit coats, all the while critiquing my posture or husky build. I was taken there as a 3-year-old, and I am still returning there today.

Howard and Lexington was an essential Baltimore urban experience. I would not have traded one second of time spent there for a trip to the suburban shopping centers. Not that you can buy life's necessities on Howard Street anymore. The stores are mostly gone, and besides, the whole picture has changed. People don't spend their weekday afternoons shopping. When we do, we pile goods in shopping carts at discount chains.

That said, I still make my pilgrimages to the ancient retail cathedrals at Howard and Lexington streets. I don't really go back to revisit the memories as much as I return to see what's happening, to watch a neighborhood endure the ordeal of reinventing itself.

I spent more than a few minutes examining the Stewart's building, which the Weinberg Foundation is turning into offices. Workers were smashing and tearing out the front windows, the places where we gathered for the rites of window shopping, often on Thanksgiving nights. In their day, these windows provided good, free entertainment.

I wonder if the store-display employees, who toiled at mannequins and props, worked any less hard than the construction workers now disassembling the exterior showcases.

Stewart's closed more than 20 years ago. (Coincidentally, its once stylish York Road suburban branch is also being ripped apart for conversion into a Baltimore County office building, suggesting the vagaries of retailing are not connected strictly to location.) I was curious about the spot on Howard Street where I regularly entered the building. The demolition work has revealed fluted columns, the big structural underpinnings that supported floor after floor of cash registers, pneumatic tubes, sales tables, display pieces and light fixtures. They were truly the big stores, with department after department, corners, nooks and hidden staircases.

I looked for the old elevator shafts, which, through modernization, became escalators. For some reason, I can still recall the chrome Westinghouse name plates on the art-deco elevator cabs.

When discussing the fine points of Stewart's elevators with friends one day, I found that I was not the only one who had a story that centered on this spot. A younger friend, who had consumed way too many Berger's cookies at Lexington Market, recalled that it was here that he became ill.

I found myself watching the ongoing work here in the same way I might have checked out the windows' holiday decorations circa 1960. Then a set of light rail cars, bells ringing, rattled through. Who would have ever thought that streetcars would return to Howard Street? Who would have ever thought that Stewart's would endure into a second century?

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