Here and there in the city: Signs of mercantile past

October 04, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

I was huffing up Charles Street the other morning when I glanced westward toward Lexington Street. There in the distance was a freshly painted wall. It said simply, "Stewart's."

I was amazed. Someone has had the wit to restore a painted wall sign that had disappeared for so many years. Stewart's, of course, was the old department store at Howard and Lexington streets that closed about 23 years ago. The Weinberg Foundation, which owns the building, has restored this fine commercial structure. I didn't realize the Lexington Street sign would come back, too, and once reinstated, would be so visible, thanks to its presence atop the seventh-floor exterior wall.

Like other city observers, I enjoy looking for the ancient painted wall signs that peep through here and there. If your eyes are good, it's still possible to make out fading lead paint on the Bernheimer's Big Home store on Fayette Street. Ditto a version of the old Julius Gutman (later Epstein's) motto at Park Avenue and Marion Street.

At Eutaw and Baltimore streets, there's a "Hippodrome 10-cent popular vaudeville" sign, though it was only visible for a little while last year, before a new building went up during all the construction.

Still visible on Baltimore Street, between Eutaw and Howard streets, is a remarkable ad for silk used in the garment industry - a reminder of this old neighborhood's dominant employer. And If I'm not mistaken, there is still a big rooftop rectangle of Hutzler's green sign (with Roman lettering) on the store's former Saratoga Street parking garage.

It's taken me a couple of decades to deal with the demise of the downtown businesses that these signs noted. The revived Hippodrome, of course, is an exception (and I was last in there for a show in 1959). I hear the theater's big vertical sign will be coming back, too.

The great stores may be gone, but I'm all for honoring their memorable presence with a real sign, not merely a bland historical marker.

Another day this week, I made it out to the old Stieff Silver plant near the 29th Street Bridge. Its rooftop sign remains a delight. And while there, I saw the work for what looks to be a new bike trail that will take you from the top of the Jones Falls Valley into the bottom, along Falls Road.

Down there, you'll be able to spot the weathered Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad sign on the freight station of the old line, which pulled up the tracks in 1958. The station is now the workroom of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, where, if the cars are running, you'll maybe spot a mint-condition roll-up destination sign for West Arlington or Light and Lee.

Come to think of it, maybe there'll be more historic-sign reclamation. I could see, for example, the Chesapeake Restaurant, Morgan Millwork and Martin J. Barry all staging a comeback, if only in paint and neon.

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