Antiques to restore business to old shop

Makeover: A couple plan to turn the former G.C. Murphy store in Hampden into an antiques bazaar.

August 28, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When it opened in the Roaring Twenties, the expansive G.C. Murphy store in Hampden was a five-and-dime heaven. Customers paraded past its Stieff upright piano and sheet music counter to get to vast displays of dolls, paper kites, penny candy, hairnets, mothballs, handkerchiefs, teapots, soap, stationery, ink and candlesticks.

Now, three-quarters of a century later, those trinkets and collectibles will have a chance to come back to this grand emporium -- this time as antiques.

The tin ceiling of the old Murphy's building remains much as it was, although generations of roosting pigeons have taken a toll on the original roof. But a new roof and an asbestos cleanup are part of a makeover at 901 W. 36th St., and the new owners, Alfred X. and Elissa C.B. Strati, plan to reopen the building Nov. 1 as an antiques bazaar on the original edge pinewood floor.

For the Stratis, the Murphy building is about much more than merchandise. They have acquired a place on Hampden's shopping "Avenue" that holds a large inventory of memories, and they intend to burnish, not banish, the past.

"It will be the Murphy building in the hearts and minds of Hampden forever," says Elissa Strati, who with her husband recently bought the property for $350,000 from the John W. Tottle family estate, which sold its small Baltimore chain of five-and-dime businesses to the G.C. Murphy company in the 1920s. But the Tottle family retained ownership of the Hampden property and leased the building for nearly 80 years.

Avenue Antiques, as the new business will be called, should fit right in with the new and the old faces of Hampden, says Elissa Strati. "It will be another piece of the solidification, the enhancement of Hampden. Upscale is what the neighborhood deserves," she says.

Bounded by West 41st Street, Keswick Road, Wyman Park Drive and Falls Road, Hampden has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the past decade. Once considered an insular white enclave, the Avenue has shown over the past decade that it can attract and keep small but thriving galleries, restaurants, home furnishings shops and funky stores such as Hampden Junque. Two of the restaurants, Golden West Cafe and Holy Frijoles, are expanding into new quarters.

Out of respect for the original Murphy's, the Stratis saved the red- and gold-painted metal letters that spelled out the Murphy name on the facade for 77 years. The couple plan to hang the letters on the walls of the spacious three-story building, which is being stripped to its bare steel, wood and brick frame.

Elissa Strati says the Murphy letters are not for sale but would fetch a good price. "Everybody in the neighborhood wants to buy a letter," she says.

Franklin R. Morgan, 40, who works in the Mexican restaurant across the street from the old Murphy building, remembers it well as the place he worked when he was 18. But his boyhood memories of it are even sharper.

"My grandmother called it the five-and-ten," Morgan says. "When I was little, my brother and I did all our Christmas shopping there, you know, like bubble bath with a cat head top for my mother. They used to sell fish, turtles and birds, too, when I was little."

In need of restoration after languishing since the 1970s, the rectangular building at West 36th Street and Elm Avenue offered the Stratis plenty of floor space -- 3,750 square feet on three levels -- to expand their antiques business on Falls Road.

They say they will rent out space to as many as 20 antique dealers to set up displays on the main floor. Seventeen dealers have responded to the monthly rate of $3 a square foot, Elissa Strati says.

Their current shop is just around the corner from the Avenue, as the commercial corridor of West 36th Street is called, so the Stratis are no strangers to Hampden.

Denise Whiting, proprietor of Cafe Hon, considers the arrival of more antiques on the Avenue another shot in the arm to Hampden's main street. "Gosh, this is so fabulous," she said to Elissa Strati as she surveyed the upstairs workshop space where the Stratis will be able to overlook the main floor.

While they toured the building, Whiting and Strati admired an architectural detail hard to find these days, an Italianate white terrazzo staircase. Another discovery that pleased them was finding the original mahogany walls under the pegboard panels.

"This is so inviting," Strati says. "You see why we're having so much fun. This is the kind of stuff we love."

Alfred Strati says the building itself is an antique. "We weren't looking at the bad roof or the pegboard. We were looking at the history and ambience we could polish up a little," he says.

For historical ambience, it's hard to beat a vintage Detecto scale that looks undisturbed through the decades. That was something the Stratis found in working order after throwing out five filled trash bins.

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