`Chief financial officer' kept family's business tidy

May 25, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

THE DAYS SEEM numbered for a big brick house at the northeast corner of Charles and 33rd streets that has been owned by Johns Hopkins University for many years. It sits on the site of a planned new bookstore and has, I presume, outlived its economic usefulness.

It's a house of huge proportions, the kind of place built in the era of President William Howard Taft, when North Charles Street was home to the kind of mansions you'd find today in Laurelford or along the Falls Road corridor in Baltimore County. Needless to say, I'd like to see it preserved and fixed, but I don't think that's in the cards.

That said, the house has always held a fascination to me because of a woman I never met, a great aunt whose hold on my family I witnessed but never experienced face-to-face.

My grandmother's sister, Helen Bancroft Stewart, was the secretary and treasurer of the Beaver Valley Coal Company, whose president, Grafflin Cook, built the home at Charles and 33rd. Her office was in that home; as a child I was fascinated by the stories of this great aunt who had died several years before I was born.

And while I often write about growing up in the old house on Guilford Avenue, surrounded by numerous family members, there was also much talk of those who had passed on, those who made their mark in the household and now endured in family legend.

My great-grandmother, who herself lived to ancient status, had five daughters. Three never left the house on Guilford Avenue. Another moved only about six blocks away to University Place in Oakenshawe; but she often took her meals at family headquarters. One daughter died as a young mother.

Of all the Stewart sisters, only Helen never married. By legend, she inherited the family brains and commercial acumen. She was a star scholar at Eastern High School and entered the business world shortly thereafter.

She also ran the house accounts, paid the taxes and held the mortgage. She also knew how to open the wall safe, which had a devilish combination. And while she had no children of her own, she had her share of nieces and nephews, all of whom deeply respected the chief financial officer of the operation.

As a child I heard remarks to the effect that if something was done right, Helen did it or had a hand in it.

I often heard of her long, Gibson Girl-style, perfectly groomed, coppery red hair that she had cut short in World War II. A call went out from the old Julien Friez (later Bendix) instrument company in East Baltimore for human red hair - that had never been treated with the chemicals associated with a permanent wave. The hair was needed for weather instruments used in military aircraft. I can see Helen doing the right thing, giving up her long tresses.

There were also surviving letters and recipes in her handwriting - small, directed, precise and graceful.

There is also a photograph of her, made in late 1917, proudly standing on the front porch of all those new rowhouses on Guilford Avenue. She holds an infant, my mother. Both child and aunt are devoted to each other.

And knowing something of the work ethic of the Stewart sisters, I can see Helen walking down the front steps and making her way to 33rd and Charles. Time to do the bills.

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