Before Baltimore had an aquarium or a children's museum or an ESPN Zone, department stores made downtown a regional attraction.
Especially at this time of year, the intersection of Howard and Lexington streets teemed with activity, as shoppers came from miles around to view the display windows and get in the holiday spirit.
While attracting visitors, these "grand palaces" transformed the west side of downtown into a thriving commercial district, revolutionized the way people shopped and signaled to the rest of the country that Baltimore had arrived as a major American city.
They also provided an economic engine for central Maryland, exposed middle-class residents to fashion trends and brought more women to the business district, which was previously a man's domain.
Monuments to consumption in the Monumental City, they were the forerunners of such present-day "shoppertainment" attractions as Harborplace, Power Plant Live! and Arundel Mills.
The impact of Baltimore's flagship department stores is the subject of Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore, a multimedia exhibit on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St.
Curated by Melissa Martens, this is the first major museum exhibit devoted to Jewish-owned department stores in the United States. It sheds light on the origins of Baltimore's retail emporiums, why they were concentrated on the west side, and the many roles they filled. It's also a nostalgic walk through history, using photographs, merchandise, store fixtures and other artifacts to transport viewers back to the heyday of Baltimore's traditional retail center.
An accompanying catalog published by the museum provides even more detail, with chapters on the early merchant princes and the risks they took to build their palaces; the racial politics that affected their operations; and expressions of Jewish identity in a predominantly secular environment. Essays by Martens, historians Dean Krimmell and Paul Kramer and museum executive director Avi Decter provide a valuable overview of the history of Baltimore's west side.
The intersection of Howard and Lexington streets has become "the crossroads of Maryland," a Hochschild, Kohn & Co. publication proclaimed in 1947. "Here we meet the wives of Baltimore brokers, of Eastern Shore chicken farmers, of Western Maryland miners, of southern Maryland tobacco growers. Here we meet teachers and their students, housewives and business women."
To keep appealing to a broad array of customers, the department store must be "a meeting place, a museum, a fashion authority, an amusement center, an educational center, a force in the community," proprietor Martin Kohn stated in 1966.
Through the store
In the museum's Sadie B. Feldman Gallery, the exhibit has been cleverly set up to evoke different areas of a department store, from the display windows and revolving doors outside to the retail areas with their glass counters, the dressing rooms, the tearoom, and the back of the house.
These departments are used to explore different ways that the stores themselves touched the lives of Marylanders -- as catalysts for urban growth, purveyors of popular culture and taste, and vehicles for women's independence.
The exhibit focuses on three longtime businesses that were at or near Howard and Lexington streets -- Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn and Hecht's -- and the families that ran them. All opened after 1885 and were gone from Howard Street by 1990. The exhibit traces the evolution of these stores, explores the range of goods and services they provided, takes viewers behind the scenes to meet the owners and their employees, and touches on the area's recent history.
Other department stores are featured as well, including Joel Gutman & Co., the Hub, Brager's, Eisenberg's and Rosenstein Bros. Stewart's, which operated for many years at the northeast corner of Howard and Lexington streets, is not featured as prominently as some others because it was not Jewish-owned. But the store was built in 1899 and 1900 by a Jewish retailer, Samuel Posner, and remains one of the area's landmarks.
Visitors will come away with plenty of information about these businesses and the rivalries between them: how Bernheimer Bros. and the Leader Co. merged before May Co. acquired them both, where the merchants lived in north Baltimore and what charitable causes they supported.
Much of the story is told with memorabilia, from an antique cash register to fine china that featured images of Baltimore's Washington Monument.
Viewers are likely to be struck by how much retailing has changed, and how many traditions have been lost over time. Old photos depict the button counter, the record shop, and a shoe shopper buying war bonds. The exhibit's re-created tearoom shows that department stores doubled as dining establishments for many shoppers.