Remains of the old days

Finds: Restorers of old buildings dig up the strangest things -- from skeletons to cars.

March 11, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The Order of Odd Fellows lodge at Saratoga and Cathedral streets was brimming with antiques when her family bought the building. The fraternal organization had been there since the late 1800s, and Lone Azola had been taking inventory of each player piano, pool table and uniform when she got to the steamer trunk on an upper floor.

There it was, inside: a human skeleton.

And just as in the movies, the fuse blew and the room went dark. It was 10 more minutes before the construction foreman restored the lights. Azola stood there frozen, clasping the lid.

She and her husband, developer and historic-building renovator Martin Azola, overcame their initial shock and found 12 more perfectly wired skeletons in horizontal lockers in the walls of the organization chapter rooms before they were done looking around that day in 1976. One more was found a few years later by a young helper.

Talk about skeletons in the closet.

"The kid was on the first floor and I was on the fourth floor, but I could hear him scream like he was standing next to me," Martin Azola said. "When I got downstairs, I saw him rounding the bend. That was a Monday, and no one saw him again until Friday when he came looking for a check and mumbling about how crazy we all were."

Human remains are unusual, Martin Azola said, although he later found pig bones underneath another historic house. But developers and others renovating old buildings in Baltimore often stumble upon oddities long forgotten under floorboards and sealed behind drywall during renovations.

Most of the items don't have a current use and end up dumped at a landfill. Sometimes, developers don't even know what they've found. But they all say they find things. Sometimes they're surprised. Sometimes they're annoyed. They're usually a little more enlightened about the city's past.

Azola said he never found out why the bones were in the building. He did discover papers explaining that they were Civil War victims purchased by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Azola said he sold the skeletons to an antiques dealer along with the other antiques.

Other items Azola has found have been less creepy. In an 1854 brownstone at Lexington and Charles streets, he found in an attic storeroom the original architectural drawings for many of Baltimore's well-known buildings, including Johns Hopkins Hospital, opened in the late 1800s, and the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, built in 1900. Nineteenth-century architectural firms renting space there had left the drawings behind. He said many of the papers are now at the Maryland Historical Society.

"We routinely find old stuff like bottles and nails," he said. "When these 100-year-old buildings sit for that long with the same tenant, then they haven't been picked through yet. So, yup, you're going to find stuff."

Many discoveries are not so historically significant.

Boxer Properties discovered a sign in the basement of one of the downtown buildings it recently purchased that warned: "Careful, water six feet deep." It turned out to be the remnants of a Turkish bath.

"You got a steam and a bath and a cot for the night. Three bucks. Men only," said Charley Greene, who works in Boxer's building and said he used the bath in 1962 on days he worked late.

Walter Schamu, an architect at Schamu Machowski Greco Architects who renovates historic buildings, said the attics are often places where people stash old things and forget about them. Garages have also yielded old bikes, sleds, even a Mercedes-Benz "that looked like it was straight out of the Third Reich," Schamu said.

"There were church pews in one person's attic, in a barn in Baltimore County, that no one knew where they came from," he said. "One house had dry cleaning returned in the 1950s still wrapped. If you start looking at them, you never stop, so you don't look."

Fred Struever, of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse Inc., has made a hobby of collecting artifacts from Baltimore's industrial past.

Much of the stuff, which lines the walls of his Tide Point office, are early-20th-century industrial parts and products. But some things had nothing to do with work, such as the rough ceramic rum bottle nestled in the ground beneath what is now the Thames Street parking garage, and a marble piece of the bar from the basement of the former Kernan Hotel.

From the Munsey Building, a former bank structure being renovated into apartments, Struever has a safe-deposit box door that was torn out of the cellar. "You have to grab this stuff before it disappears. The first thing I do on a job site is tell the crew to look out for artifacts," he said. "They're little pieces of Baltimore. Cool, huh?"

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