Strip club owners try to save the bar that Ruth built

They hope site's link to baseball great will alter west-side project plans

March 22, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The Babe is long gone, but the owners of a strip club on downtown's west side are counting on the baseball great from Baltimore to save their business with the equivalent of a home run in the bottom of the ninth.

The City Council is poised to give the city's economic development arm the power to acquire the Goddess club at Eutaw and Lombard streets. A final vote is set for tonight.

Baltimore Development Corp. officials view that corner -- two blocks north of Camden Yards and two south of the Hippodrome Theatre -- as a prime spot in the re-energized west side.

Adult entertainment is hardly what BDC officials have in mind. At some point, they would like to see "market-rate" apartments, with first-floor retail.

George and Foula Kritikos, the couple who owns the club, fear their livelihood is at stake. They have sunk everything they have into the venture, they say, and are making exterior changes costing more than $60,000. They don't want to sell it.

While that argument has not swayed city officials or City Council members, the Kritikoses have tried a new approach. They are invoking the Babe Ruth connection, loudly.

They say the city should not acquire the bar because Ruth bought it for his father after the 1915 season and donned an apron there during winters off from the Boston Red Sox.

George Kritikos, 39, a Greece native who moved to the United States in 1981, barely knew who Ruth was when he bought the property in 1995. Now he and his lawyer, John C. Murphy, are playing up the link for all it's worth.

"This is the greatest story in the world: `City of Baltimore condemns Babe Ruth's bar.' I can't believe it," Murphy said.

Murphy argues that if the city acquires the building under eminent domain, demolition would likely follow. That's not necessarily true, say city officials and west-side redevelopment advocates. The three-story building could be made part of a new, larger development.

`A nice plaque'

But BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie wonders about the building's historical significance, no matter who tended the bar nearly 90 years ago. If it were demolished, he said, "perhaps there would be a nice plaque remembering that the Ruths once served there."

Brodie is awaiting guidance from the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation on how important the building is.

Late Friday, the group's executive director, Kathleen G. Kotarba, said in an e-mail to The Sun: "The building is significant due to its association with Babe Ruth." She added that, despite renovations over the years, "it should definitely be preserved."

No one disputes the Ruth connection. The slugger, then an ace pitcher as well, bought the bar after the 1915 season, when he received $3,750 as his winning World Series share, according to Robert Creamer's book, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.

"It's pretty special from a historical standpoint that the bar he bought his dad, after he signed his major league contract with the Red Sox, is still around," said Laurie Ward of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

A grainy picture from the time shows George Herman Ruth Sr. behind the long wooden bar, his right hand resting by a cash register and his left holding a cigar.

His son, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, stands nearby wearing a vest, tie and apron.

Tragedy cut short the father-son business. The elder Ruth, who owned or managed several saloons in the city, was killed in a brawl outside the Eutaw Street bar Aug. 24, 1918, the day Ruth stole home for the first time in a game at Fenway Park, Ward says.

The bar stayed in the Ruth family until 1920. As of 1934, records show, it was called Katz's Cafe, then Morris' and other names over the decades. By 1970, it was a strip club called Tic Toc, a place well known to the police vice squad over the next 25 years for prostitution.

In 1995, George Kritikos and a partner, Antonios Nickolaou, bought the building for $325,000. That year, the name changed to the Goddess, with Nickolaou and George Stamatis on the liquor license. Foula Kritikos, 29, is now on the liquor license as well; Stamatis is gone, and Nickolaou will be soon, the Kritikoses say.

Today the bar looks different than it did in 1918. The inside has been gutted. The wood bar that the Ruths polished is gone. The wall they stood in front of was knocked down to make way for a stage with a pole.

Gone also is the spittoon trough. On the ceiling, a disco ball now spins.

Foula Kritikos said they run a respectable club with "no back room" and no tolerance for prostitution. City liquor board records show no violations since 2001.

Busy season

George Kritikos said that with baseball's Opening Day weeks away, the busy season is about to begin. Not only that, he said, but the Goddess stands to benefit from a resurgent west side.

"We had to grind it out to get the good days," he said. "Now we're about to get it, and they want to take it away from us."

The City Council is likely to keep the Goddess in the bill, along with a number of other properties, said Caprece Jackson-Garrett, spokeswoman for Council President Sheila Dixon.

To some powerful west-side interests, the strip club does not belong.

"That's a pretty tawdry establishment and not something one would normally incorporate into a neighborhood development," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business group.

Ward said the building should be saved, perhaps reborn as a neighborhood pub or restaurant. She said the museum would like its visitors to see the bar, but as it stands, "we're certainly not going to recommend people go there."

If need be, the Kritikoses said they would convert the Goddess to a bar and grill, though the changes -- removing mirrored ceiling panels, for starters -- would be costly.

But what they really hope is that the City Council will exempt the Goddess. They say they've even thought about a new name: Babe's.

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