Tasteful tradition resumes

History: The Woman's Industrial Exchange reopens after a year's hiatus, with a new look and old comforts.

December 02, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Scores of hungry Baltimoreans sat back down yesterday to lunches of chicken salad and tomato aspic at the 123-year-old Woman's Industrial Exchange, as the revered tea room and consignment shop reopened after a year-long absence from the city's workaday world.

A $2 million renovation has updated the Exchange for 21st-century palates and brought a few changes. For starters, the waitresses wore black pants instead of the usual well-worn knee-length uniform dresses with aprons tied in bows. The new menu includes more contemporary fare, such as hummus on multigrain bread and a salad with goat cheese and strawberries.

The dumbwaiter is no more. And even the Exchange's famous tomato aspic is not exactly as it used to be - it's jazzed up with V-8 instead of garden-variety tomato juice.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about the Woman's Industrial Exchange misspelled the name of Mary-Ann Pinkard. Also, a photo caption accompanying the story misspelled the name of Rozz DuPree.

But the heart of the Exchange remains, right down to the scruffy black-and-white linoleum floor and the Greek revival onyx fireplaces in the lunch room. Also still around is the crowd-pleasing chicken salad that is billed on the menu as an Exchange "original."

Several customers walked in at noon as if they had been counting the days until the Exchange, located in an aging six-story brick building at 333 N. Charles St., opened for business again.

For more than a century, the Exchange has been a genteel lunch rendezvous for a mix of white-collar Baltimoreans - judges, librarians, architects, bankers, museum curators and anyone else who wanted to partake of not only lunch but also a piece of the city's downtown shopping experience. The Exchange's accompanying artisan shop began as part of a 19th century national movement by women who sold their crafts and other handmade goods anonymously to help support their families.

At her lunch table yesterday, Mary-Ann Pickard's verdict on the aspic on her plate reflected the general opinion. "It's a little different, but still very good," said Pickard, a special events coordinator who works downtown.

As Pickard surveyed the freshly painted pale gray room, she said, "The Exchange has gone upscale. It's a little more dressed up."

Some lunchers came in groups to celebrate the re-opening together. Among them was a family of six sisters and brothers ranging in age from 68 to 84. The group traded Exchange tales, including a sighting of the late Katharine Hepburn lunching there in her younger days.

Zell Fisher, one of the sisters, said, "I've been coming here for more than 40 years. There's no place like it - it's the best oldtime atmosphere. We're one of the first in the door."

Elaine Kline, her sister, said she and others have relied on the Exchange as a kind of mainstay. "Through the years, it gives me a tremendous calmness, away from the rush. It's a refuge to me," she said.

Also at their table was Melvin Fisher, who had a chicken salad sandwich on rye. "Everything was pretty good." Yet he added two caveats: "The flowers were paper and the coffee was cold."

The consignment shop, full of knit and handmade clothes, blankets, toys, crafts and Baltimore landscape postcards by artist Greg Otto, was left mostly unchanged by the renovation, save no cupcakes were on display. (They are still available.)

The first women's exchange shop began in Philadelphia in 1832. Baltimore's shop is the third-oldest operating exchange in the country; it no longer sells only goods made by female artisans.

Exchange officials in Baltimore have found that it's a delicate balance to preserve the past and be viable in the present. In the 1990s, they were close to going out of business.

Barbara Ewing, president of the Exchange's board, said yesterday, "We feel it's important to keep tradition alive, and we're struggling to do that."

Yesterday's opening marked the culmination of a renovation project that the Exchange's board hopes will bridge a venerable past with a healthy future. Besides installing much-needed new kitchen and plumbing facilities and a handicapped-accessible elevator, the Exchange now rents out seven apartments on its upper floors to help generate a steady income.

The project was paid for with a combination of federal grants, historic tax credits and private donations, according to Exchange officials.

Ewing said the renovation marked a sea change for the Exchange, requiring the nonprofit to show more financial knowledge - along with the slightly modernized menu - to keep up with the times. So far, she said, the changes have been accepted by the core circle of Exchange loyalists. "It's been heartwarming," Ewing said.

Rozz DuPree, 47, the new restaurant operator, was being helped yesterday by her friend Denise Whiting, the owner of Cafe Hon. DuPree, who previously owned a coffee shop at the Rotunda, said she leased the restaurant business from the Exchange last month.

DuPree pointed to the "Charlotte Russe" dessert on the menu as proof the good old days are not gone.

"It's a cupcake with ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry," she said. "And we are making our own hot fudge."

Business hours will be longer, DuPree said, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The look of the dining room is a delicate balance that tips back and forth between the new gray paint and the old linoleum floor. The goal is to welcome back the old-timers, but also invite some newcomers in the downtown lunch crowd.

Many diners said yesterday that the decor succeeded. Melvin Fisher said, "It kept the tradition, and it's not modern, not too old."

As the family party was wrapping up, three young diners from Ruxton - Melanie Matthews, 9, Paige Wingate, 9, and Brooke Wingate, 7 - came in with Laurie Wingate, mother of Paige and Brooke. The girls glanced around and said they liked the old-fashioned surroundings and the historic feeling.

"I'm trying to give them a feel for this," said Wingate, after she ordered the salad with goat cheese and strawberries.

Sun staff writer Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

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