City family packs a century of living

House: After five generations at one address on William Street, it's time to go.

May 09, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

For more than a century, they've lived on William Street in South Baltimore, a constant presence in a neighborhood that has undergone several re-inventions.

But this month, the Gerbers are leaving, selling the Federal Hill house they have owned and occupied since 1900, the year it was built in what was then, and is again today, a thriving area near the water. When the house officially changes hands this month, it will be the passing of an age.

"I'm the only one left, and I can feel everyone in the room with me," says Lillian Agnes Gerber Venrick. "I feel like I'm letting them all down."

Venrick grew up in the three-story house in the 1200 block of William St. with seven brothers and sisters. She raised her children and helped raise her grandchildren there.

At age 74, she's packing up a lifetime of belongings - and finding five generations' worth of keepsakes - in the narrow Formstone house.

Selling the house this spring made financial sense, but Venrick isn't sure her sister Gertrude or brother Lester would understand. Even after they grew up, five of her seven siblings lived within walking distance, with the older Gertrude next door.

They are all gone except her.

She clasps a tiny pair of bifocal spectacles attached to a hairpin, a reminder of her great-grandmother. It's small enough to bring along to her new home, the Christ Church senior apartments on Light Street, overlooking the Inner Harbor.

Another precious item is the frayed christening dress worn in 1894 by her mother, Elsie Elizabeth Knieling Gerber. Over the scores of years since, nearly all the family babies have worn it when they were baptized at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church a block away.

Up a steep, winding staircase, simple artifacts on each floor resemble a Smithsonian showcase of an American family through the 20th century:

The old sewing machine, heavy ceramic bathtub, steamer trunk and rocking chairs are all in place, undisturbed for years. Angels drawn by Venrick adorn the closed coal fireplaces that used to heat the living room and bedrooms.

On time for dinner

Venrick, the middle link among the five generations who called the house home, says the house once had a wood stove in the kitchen. That's where her mother, Elsie Gerber, held court and expected her children to make it to the table on time:

"The church bells rang at 6, and you'd better be in the house before the bells finished tolling. We used to have seafood - crabs, oysters - every Friday. On Sundays, there was steak and tomato gravy with fresh-baked bread. But our favorite was fried duck eggs at Easter."

Venrick's daughters, Mary Asbury and Susan Junker, are helping their mother close up the house and the history inside.

Asbury, 49, says she remembers a comfortable rhythm to life on William Street. She grew up in the 1950s and 1960s amid a sea of familiar faces, nicknames, neighbors and extended family. With Cross Street Market just around the corner, there was never a shortage of people, sounds and smells.

"Everybody talked to each other and helped each other out," Asbury says. "You knew everyone by name, not like now."

"There were a-rabbers selling fruit," she recalls of the peddlers on horse-drawn wagons. "The mailman was always on time and would step inside and say, `Here's your mail, Mrs. Gerber.'"

Asbury remembers when Formstone was "the big thing" as a durable exterior for brick rowhouses. But she can't pinpoint when her family chose to have the gray-brown material plastered on the facade.

Changes in store

When the house changes hands, that Formstone will be one of the first things to go, says John McClay, the 20-year-old entrepreneur who bought the place as an investment. Similar unrenovated rowhouses typically go for $150,000 to $200,000.

McClay says he will upgrade, expand and add such modern amenities as a roof deck. He plans to resell the place - probably for quite a profit. Other houses nearby have recently sold for about $450,000.

The sale represents the larger transition in gentrifying such neighborhoods as Federal Hill and Canton, where long-held rowhouses are being bought, redeveloped and resold.

For Venrick's daughters and 20-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer Ravel, the impending move is their last chance to decide whether they want to save such stuff as an old bowling trophy or a broken 1960s record player.

"There's my little hippie button from 1973," said Asbury, who graduated from Southern High School, worked as a bartender for several years and now lives on a boat in the harbor.

Venrick's father, William Gerber, also grew up at the same address.

His parents, John and Cunnigunda (a German name) were the original owners in 1900. They died 20 years later during the worldwide influenza epidemic after World War I.

Gerber earned his living as a manager at Gordon's Cartons, a factory that made cardboard boxes. Two of his sons, Lester and John, also worked there.

Gerber walked to work on Warner Street every day. In the 1940s, four of his sons - Venrick's brothers - left home when they were drafted for military service in World War II. All returned to settle in or near Baltimore.

Family members make a point of calling the neighborhood South Baltimore, a proud blue-collar name that is gradually losing ground and addresses to the Federal Hill name. They know that their old house will also be transformed.

There are things Venrick can't take, such as the built-in cedar closet, the original glass panes, the fireplaces.

"You have to leave some things behind," she said. "I tried to go quietly. I'll miss the whole shebang."

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