Caplan's building to get facelift

Ex-department store to be sold and renovated

Main St. landmark since 1895

The buyers plan to build apartments on rear lot

Ellicott City

December 29, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Three Ellicott City businessmen are close to purchasing a landmark building that for more than 80 years housed Caplan's Department Store, an anchor on Main Street since the family business opened in 1895.

The buyers - Dr. Bruce Taylor, Jared Spahn and Donald R. Reuwer Jr. - plan to restore the facade of the structure, where the Caplan family ran a thriving retail business and lived above the store. They expect to finalize the deal next month.

In addition to renovating the building, the businessmen hope to build apartments on a vacant lot behind it that extends to St. Paul Street, said Spahn, president of Old Town Construction on Main Street. He also is president of the Ellicott City Business Association.

"It was a typical small-town America department store," he said of Caplan's. "Pre-Hecht's, pre-Macy's, pre-Nordstrom and the mall."

"It's a lovely building and extremely well-built, but it needs cosmetic attention," Reuwer said.

For Taylor, the purchase keeps the building in the family. Isaac Taylor, Taylor's great-grandfather, married Rose Caplan in the department store.

The heart and soul of Caplan's was Samuel H. Caplan, who ran the department store from 1923 until it went out of business in 1977.

"He was like the unofficial mayor of Ellicott City," said Ronald Spahn, an attorney for the Caplan estate and Jared Spahn's father.

"He was born on the street, and never left it," Ronald Spahn said. "He certainly could have afforded better, but he just loved to be above the store and watch everything."

In the mid-1980s, Caplan's Antiques - no relation to the department store Caplan's - leased the building. Jared Spahn said he and his partners will continue to rent the space to the antiques and auction business.

The buyers would not disclose their contract offer to the Caplan family, but in July the property was assessed at $467,200, according to state tax documents.

Caplan's Department Store was founded in 1895 by Samuel Caplan's mother, Rachel Caplan. Samuel Caplan graduated from the Johns Hopkins University and then studied medicine at the University of Maryland. In 1923, he abandoned his medical studies to help his mother in the family business. He married Gertrude Klein in 1941.

In Caplan's heyday, the store did much of its business in sales of work clothes - and the occasional suit - to farmers and mill workers. Caplan's was especially busy Friday evenings after mill employees were paid.

"I remember a guy telling me how Sam would extend his credit and let him pay a dollar a week on a suit," Ronald Spahn said.

Former state Sen. James Clark Jr., who owns a farm in Ellicott City, said he had a ritual of buying rubber boots at Caplan's after the first snow of the season.

"They always had everything there that you needed," Clark said.

Caplan's remained prosperous throughout the 1950s, but the next decade brought more suburban homes and new competition - the strip mall.

Another big blow to Caplan's occurred in 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes flooded Main Street.

"Don't ask me, don't ask me [about the flood]. I think that was really the turning point of Ellicott City," Gertrude D. Caplan said in a 1997 oral history project coordinated by Friends of Patapsco Valley & Heritage Greenway Inc. "That was the downfall of our business ... because it just, everything just sort of was washed away."

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