Tearoom, steeped in elegance

New spot in Hampden, Finnerteas, evokes nostalgia of city's department-store era

March 02, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

The past in its most decorous form is never so remote that Alice Ann Finnerty cannot touch some fragment of it daily in her Hampden consignment shops. Perhaps it's logical that she would raise her new life project on a foundation of memory.

It had to be a tearoom, as Finnerty tells the story, if only to appease a persistent nostalgic impulse. She would restore some elements of a day when the Hutzler Brothers Co. meant not just a fine downtown Baltimore shopping experience, but also the prospect of enjoying an afternoon in the department store's sixth-floor restaurant, the Colonial, known also as the tearoom.

"I was 7 years old when I started going there" with her mother and aunt, says Finnerty, who is 65. "I felt very special. The surroundings had a touch of elegance. ... I felt it was important to create a tearoom that resembled the ambience."

The result is Finnerteas on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden, which Finnerty plans to run with her daughter, Kathleen Curtis. It's the latest addition to Baltimore's "tea scene," wherein respite is sought from a world that would otherwise have you spend a late afternoon break at the office vending machine, or slurping coffee in the car. The very word tearoom suggests an era well before multi-tasking became a common life skill.

Finnerteas -- which opened last week -- seats about 37 people for light lunches and traditional afternoon tea consisting of scones and tea sandwiches. High tea -- a substantial meal often consisting of five courses -- is offered by reservation only. The menu includes a selection of more than 20 teas and coffee.

Fare is served on Limoges china and sterling silver on white tablecloths, all of it from the two locations of the Turnover Shop in Hampden, which Finnerty owns. With its pale-green walls, crown moldings, floral-pattern upholstered chairs and vaguely Colonial brass lighting fixtures, the room evokes an atmosphere of refinement and material ease.

Progressive roots

Such ambience, along with a complement of elderly women in white gloves, is what one might expect in a tearoom. The actuality may not always fulfill the assumption, which is itself at odds with the social history of this peculiar institution. Dainty sandwiches and twee accessories aside, the American tearoom's roots are progressive in at least certain respects.

What else to call the cultural impulses and technological turns that wrought the tearoom fad in the United States in the early 20th century?

Women were getting out of the house and into business for themselves.

"During the 1920s, at the height of the tea room craze, these little businesses were virtually synonymous with female self-expression," writes Jan Whitaker in a new book, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America.

As Whitaker tells it, tearoom entrepreneurs and customers were often the same people who supported Prohibition, imposed in 1920. Prohibition made the restaurant business more inviting to women, who otherwise might have been intimidated by its boozy, often rowdy and very male atmosphere. Suddenly, it was possible for women to work in the food business without sacrificing their good reputations.

With the emergence of the automobile, tea rooms sprang up along roadsides like so many dandelions, especially in New England, which had plenty of paved roads. These leaned toward an overweening Colonial quaintness with names like "The Green Kettle," "The Corner Cupboard" and "The Cheshire Cat."

At the same time, sophisticated tearooms opened in big city hotels, where it seemed tables and chairs were often set among thickets of potted plants. In Manhattan's Greenwich Village, the bohemian crowd went tea-happy, opening room after room, painting them bold colors, hanging shawls and lanterns from exposed ceiling pipes and giving these rooms names like "The Mad Hatter" and "The Vermillion Hound."

At some point, this variety of expression devolved to the department store tearoom, which persisted in many cities through the 1950s. There among the regulars at Hutzler's, for example, would have been Alice Elizabeth Fannon, her sister-in-law, Frances Fannon, and her little daughter, Alice Ann, who kept those memories like some treasured brooch.

"I would always get dressed up with gloves, and all the women wore hats," says Finnerty. "It was definitely an occasion."

Customer evolution

Finnerteas will become one of at least five spots in Baltimore now serving tea, arriving on the scene at a time when the customer mix seems to have evolved from the last days of the department store tearoom.

"There are some co-ed things going on," says Denise Washington, who owns the Thir-Tea-First Street Cafe and Tea Room in Waverly. "A lot of men visit the tearoom with their wives."

Washington, who took over the former Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room late in 2001, says she's even had bookings from college fraternities, as well as co-ed book clubs.

Kitty Knoedler, who owns the Petticoat Tea Room in the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point, says her clientele are mostly women, but she says a lot of men come in for lunch. And forget the notion that tearooms are just for women of a certain age, says Knoedler, who reports a broad age range among her customers.

Both Knoedler and Washington say they're seeing a number of customers from Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Washington suburbs, as well as counties around the city. Evidently, word of a good tearoom will travel.

The proprietors of the Finnerteas say they conducted no market research before leaping into this new pursuit. They just had a sense that Hampden and the larger world were ready for another tearoom.

"There's a whole tea, almost, a tea society out there," says Kathleen Curtis. "It doesn't matter the age or the sex. They want good tea."

Finnerteas

Where: 3547 Chestnut Avenue, Hampden

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Sunday: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Closed Monday

Call: 410-235-8327

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