Renovations at Exchange are complete

City landmark to reopen tearoom, shop next month

October 14, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The dumbwaiter is gone, a microwave is in the stainless steel kitchen and the old lunchroom wall colors of creamy yellow and bright blue have been exchanged for a soft gray.

But a much-needed makeover of Baltimore's Woman's Industrial Exchange won't threaten tradition: The chicken salad, deviled egg and tomato aspic will remain unchanged, as will the scruffy black-and-white tile floor and the two fireplaces.

The establishment, a fixture at East Pleasant and North Charles streets since 1887, has been closed all year for renovations costing $750,000. Sometime next month -- the date hasn't been set -- the lunchroom and the clothes and crafts consignment shop are scheduled to reopen on weekdays.

"We'll maintain the history of the Exchange," said Baltimore architect Frank Gant, who is directing the last step of the renovation and guided a reporter yesterday through the work in progress. "Grandmothers can bring their granddaughters, and future generations can continue that tradition."

Old age had caught up with the Exchange. A place known for old-fashioned waitresses with aprons tied in perfect bows is entering a new era of modern plumbing, central air-conditioning and fire sprinklers.

For the dining room, the aim was to make it brighter and airier. Discussions about every decision, from selecting the right color palette to keeping the 1930s overhead light fixtures, went on for hours.

A major change, a new elevator, is ready to deliver disabled visitors from East Pleasant Street straight into the dining room. Although the elevator takes away some of the dining room space, the Exchange's board of directors felt it was well worth it.

"It was a major investment we wanted to make for the elderly," said the past board president, Linda Goldberg. "The spirit of the exchange is to be accessible to everyone, and we could hear the founders saying, `Wait a second ladies. It's the right thing to do.'"

The founders were a circle of Quaker women who, after the Civil War, established a trading place for impoverished women -- many widowed by the war -- to bring their handmade goods to sell in a setting that guaranteed their anonymity.

In 1880, the Exchange moved from a private home to a small shop on Saratoga Street. Seven years later, it moved to its current address.

Despite its period charm and the memories it holds, the Exchange has had difficulty maintaining solvency in recent years. In 2001, the board received help from U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in obtaining a $400,000 federal grant to upgrade the building and overhaul the kitchen facilities.

That grant formed the backbone of the whole project, Goldberg said. State historic preservation tax credits also provided some funding, with the condition that the project meet Maryland Historical Trust guidelines. The building is even older than the Exchange, dating to the early 19th century.

To keep finances on a firmer footing, seven apartments in the floors above the Exchange were also recently remodeled to create added income for the nonprofit organization that runs it. All are occupied.

Gant, 63, said the project brought back memories of coming to the Exchange to eat lunch with his grandmother when he was a boy in the late 1940s. "My grandmother took me on the Number 8 streetcar," he said.

The Exchange will look different when it reopens, but its core mission will remain the same, providing income to artists and artisans who sell handmade wares such as the baby sweaters and other clothes, crafts and cards still showcased in the front room by the Charles Street entrance.

But there remains some ambiguity about whether the old waitress uniforms will be reinstated when the Exchange reopens.

Barbara Ewing, the board president, said, "We would love it if we could hire people who were willing to do so."

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