Collectors may find sale fits to a tea

Memorabilia: McCormick's `village' that has been in storage for years is set to go on sale.

Architecture

January 28, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Before Baltimore's Inner Harbor had an aquarium or a science center, one of its best-known attractions was the McCormick & Co. tea house and museum, part of a simulated Elizabethan village on the seventh floor of the spice company's Light Street headquarters.

The tea house was transplanted to Sparks when McCormick moved its headquarters there in 1991 and is no longer open to the public.

But many other artifacts from McCormick's Light Street headquarters recently surfaced after 10 years in storage, and they're now being offered for sale to the public.

The artifacts were all components of various storefronts that made up McCormick's indoor village - windows, doors, light fixtures, cornerstones and moldings.

They're on display at Curiozity Shoppe II, a furniture store on the second level of 5604 York Road in Govans. Suggested prices range from $20 for a bracket that can be used as a bookend to $4,800 for an entire storefront.

"We just fell into it," said Sue Clark, one of the store's owners. "The response has been amazing. People say, `I have an aunt who worked there,' or, `I went to lunch with my grandmother there.' " If they want a piece of McCormick's, this is where to come."

Clark said her shop received a call one day from a man who said he had a dresser and table to sell. Later on, she said, the caller indicated he was retiring and had some other pieces that might be of interest.

It turned out that he was a contractor who helped demolish the McCormick building in the late 1980s and got permission to salvage some of the architectural elements that the company didn't want to reuse in its new offices. He kept them in a Fells Point warehouse for the past 10 years before selling them to Clark.

Ye Olde Tea House and the village surrounding it - called Friendship Court - were the brainstorm of then-President Charles Perry "C.P." McCormick, grandson of the company founder.

According to Jim Lynn, McCormick's public relations manager, McCormick traveled extensively on behalf of the company and often found himself sitting on hard benches in sterile waiting rooms that gave him a poor impression of his hosts.

When he became president of the company, McCormick decided its headquarters should have a waiting area where friends and visitors could be made to feel at home and get a good taste of McCormick hospitality.

In 1934, he commissioned Baltimore architect Edwin Tunis to re-create an "old English Tea House" on the seventh level of McCormick's headquarters, which was constructed in the early 1920s.

Tunis, who was also a well-known muralist, had a hard time finding a prototype.

"After a little digging, it became apparent that there was no such thing as an actual English Tea House," Tunis wrote later. "In the 1600s, when tea was first introduced into England, it was served at the inns and at the coffee houses so, after a good deal of discussion and research, it was agreed to make something that was a reproduction, more or less, of an English inn. It isn't a replica of any one inn, but rather it has features of many inns."

Tunis designed additional storefronts to resemble parts of a village that had evolved over time, with representative structures such as a bakery, counting-house and wealthy merchant's residence. These storefronts were occupied by appropriate McCormick employees - the cashier's office was in the counting-house, for example, and the merchant's residence contained the company's board room.

The tea house and an adjacent museum became a quaint starting point for tours of the plant, conducted by guides in Elizabethan dress. Visitors saw a brief filmstrip about the company in the "Little Theater," were treated to tea and cookies and then made a final stop at the company's gift shop.

It was a stroke of public relations genius that many people remember to this day, along with the changing aromas of spice that wafted over the Inner Harbor and founder Willoughby McCormick's motto: "Make the best. Someone will buy it."

The artifacts from Friendship Court trigger similar memories of old Baltimore.

Clark said buyers are reusing the architectural artifacts in a variety of ways. Some are installing the leaded-glass windows in their homes, or backlighting them to decorate bars, or turning stone pieces into garden ornaments. She thinks one etched glass window would make a terrific backdrop for a hot tub.

"Everyone is going to take this and turn it into what they want to turn it into," she said. "It's not antique. It's from the 1930s. But it's still nostalgia."

Showroom shops

Clark's shop is one of two that now occupy another Baltimore landmark, the former Jerry's Chevrolet car showroom at York Road and Bellona Avenue in Govans. Curiozity Shoppes II occupies the second level of the recycled showroom, and Traditions Inc. is on the first level.

Together they have 25,000 square feet of furnishings, rugs and accessories in the building, which has been extensively renovated after a fire in April.

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