Discovering city's history in central library's addition

November 08, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

THAT FALL day in 1963 when I first encountered the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library's Maryland Room I spent a couple of hours opening metal filing-cabinet doors in search of lost Baltimore. Those rich files told all. I was addicted on the spot.

Now, 40 years later, the venerable Maryland Room has new quarters in a library addition just to the west, still facing Franklin Street. I spent some time there this week, getting acquainted with city directories on microfilm and computer databases. I very much like the new corridor the Pratt's sympathetic architects added. Patrons now walk past the backs of some atmospheric Mulberry Street houses. You also get an excellent view of Robert Carey Long's St. Alphonsus Church steeple, now much encased in restoration scaffolding.

The new Maryland Department, reached by a new elevator, is one elegant chamber, filled with natural light admitted by north-facing windows and a magnificent clerestory. As one who is addicted to gazing out Baltimore windows, I took my fill here. You can see the light-rail cars passing the old City College and Hochschild Kohn warehouse on Howard Street. I also glanced over to the vacant lot where the mighty Stanley Theater once stood and where I once saw Saratoga Trunk. (The Maryland Room's definitive file on the Stanley held the pale-green 1927 opening-day program.)

Most normal people visit the Maryland Room for sensible requests, such as researching a point of Maryland law, or more importantly, to find an ancestor to fill out a family tree. After all, wasn't this the place that Martin Milner visited in an early 1960s episode of television's Route 66 when he and George Maharis dropped by the Pratt in their Corvette? They somehow managed to find a parking space on Cathedral Street. I believe one of the pair was looking for records on his deceased mother.

I, however, rarely visited the Maryland Room for sensible requests. I went there to read the history of the old Bernheimer Leader department store, which folded in 1927 but, in 1963, was discussed as routinely by my grandmother and her sister as people would discuss Target or Nordstrom today. These arcane references puzzled me, so I took my curiosity to the Maryland Room and threw myself on the mercy of the patient and kind librarians. I think of so many of them: Elizabeth Litzinger, Marjorie Jones, Eva Slazak, Morgan Pritchett, Mary Kennedy, Wesley Wilson and Jeff Korman. I could rarely stump them.

All the answers rest in those file drawers, maps, cabinets and book shelves (all new and decidedly state-of-the-art), ready for easy access. I will never cease to be amazed at the industry of the Pratt librarians who, over the past 75 years, have clipped and pasted so many newspaper articles and scraps of argument-settling, curiosity-satiating information.

And, I was delighted to hear that one of the first questions posed to the librarians this week when the new digs opened was, "Just where was Rice's Bakery?"

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