Reading the signs of the city much more fun years ago

January 11, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

MAYBE THE OLD neighborhood is coming back now that there is a frisky debate going over signs. You know, those things so many people think are ugly, neon, flashing, lighted and painted. They are arriving, of course, on the 1st Mariner Arena, which we locals know better as the Civic Center.

So maybe there's hope for this end of downtown yet. I bet there is. I'd like to see a big Stewart & Co. sign return to Howard and Lexington, just for old times' sake. And while we're at it, why not restore the name of Bernheimer or at least May Co. to the rather blandly named Atrium apartment building? (The state of Maryland, which occupies the old Hutzler Brothers properties on Howard Street, has lovingly retained many of its beautifully crafted bronze letters.)

For many years, I have waged a personal battle with the aesthetic police who say you cannot have a sign. I am still annoyed that my personal favorite, on Greenmount Avenue in Waverly, was yanked down by order of the mayor and City Council. It was a gorgeous RCA Victor 78-rpm record and set of Little Nipper dogs (in flashing neon.) It offended no one and had been there since the old Radio Center was selling Frank Sinatra records. It was in a commercial neighborhood.

The old A&P had a pretty good one around the corner on Gorsuch Avenue. It was metal, better yet, baked enamel.

Some of our better signs of the great 1940s and '50s wound up at the Maryland Historical Society, in a place of quiet, cemetery-like reverence. That's fine, but I wish they were back on the streets, flashing, yelling for silent attention, broadcasting to the world that this is not an e-commerce business, that there is, in fact, a clerk behind the counter waiting to help you.

I'd like to think that Baltimore's getting better now that signs are returning and they are looking so much better. Wrap up in your coat one evening and take the Water Taxi. Look at Tide Point and the new Bond Street Wharf. They've got doozies.

I also like all the rooftop signs on the downtown skyscrapers. They seem to add an excitement to this city, which still needs all the help it can get after dark.

I'll never forget the Saturday, now a little more than 40 years ago, that I had my first visit to the Charles Center. It was all spanking-new, brushed clean. All the old buildings I had known were torn down and years of ever-so-tasteful urban renewal had transformed the place. We had green grass, plazas, and a very sophisticated office building in dull green bronze by Bauhaus luminary Mies van der Rohe at the One Charles Center. It was cool 1960s, very cerebral, a symphony of stultifying avocado.

But no signs; all were banished, except for these little metal things that looked like enlarged business cards. Deliver me. I guess I just never recovered from the electric dazzle of the rooftop sign on the Stanley Theatre. It was so big and looming I used to be afraid to take the trackless trolley down Howard Street.

I still marvel at the pleasant confusion of signs inside the Lexington Market. (I so wish the Panzer pickle man would return, along with his tasty chowchow condiment.) To this day, it is a consolation to walk inside the market's Eutaw Street door and be greeted by Mary Mervis - and Mitchell's in glowing neon.

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