`10 Downing Street' on Calvert Street

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

August 12, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

The wrecking ball completed its work this week when it leveled "No. 10 Downing Street," the old cafeteria on the east side of Calvert between Baltimore and Fayette streets whose real name was Bickford's. For decades, it had been one of Baltimore's most storied and hallowed political hangouts.

And now, to passers-by and sidewalk superintendents, the only thing remaining of the demolished building is the brick-lined footprint of its cellar, which no doubt will soon give way to the rapacious demands of its wreckers.

A vest pocket-sized building with a cream-colored facade, it was shoehorned between the Munsey Building and the old Pennsylvania Railroad's downtown ticket office, later a Read's drugstore.

Bickford's took its nickname from 10 Downing Street in London - the residence of the British prime minister and epicenter of the country's political power.

For more than 40 years, not only had Bickford's been a hangout for city pols, it was also a rendezvous for denizens of the night who stopped in for a cup of coffee before calling it quits, Block revelers and night workers waiting for the streetcars or buses that would eventually transport them home in the gathering dawn.

Bickford's served its last cups of steaming coffee and platters of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, poached eggs, hamburgers and cream chipped beef and scrambled eggs to its loyal customers in 1973.

In the years after its demise - its Edward Hopper ambience now a thing of the past - it soldiered on for years as a branch of Yorkridge Federal Savings & Loan Association, and finally as a somewhat wayward and dusty used-book shop that always seemed to be devoid of humanity.

Into this informal setting, amid the aroma of freshly prepared food, and with the subtle sound of dishes and china being stacked and arranged counting as background music, trooped seasoned politicians, governors, mayors, judges, councilmen, lawyers, legislators, campaign aides, political bosses, lackeys and others who aspired to power or wanted a favor.

They came each morning to find out who was running for what office, who was up, and who was out.

Sometimes fisticuffs would erupt when political discussions got out of hand.

"Two silver-haired Bickford regulars began flailing at each other in arthritic frustration until a peacemaker stepped between them," reported The Evening Sun in 1973. "One blow was landed during the encounter, and it struck the peacemaker."

"Oh, what a shame. The news that No. 10 Downing Street is gone just breaks my heart," said former mayor and Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who logged some serious hours in the old North Calvert Street restaurant, starting his own political career over cups of coffee, doughnuts and plenty of buttered English muffins.

"All the pols would meet there. On one side of the room were Jack Pollock's men and on the other were Irv Koven's. I can tell you it was very interesting to watch," he said.

"I'd drop in there for breakfast, but I really was a Horn & Horn man. You'd drop into the East Baltimore Street Horn & Horn's and you'd see important politicians mingling with Block strippers, bartenders, and others who had gathered there after the 2 a.m. closing," recalled former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III the other day.

"While Horn & Horn was alive in the dead of the night, Bickford's was more austere. It really was the annex to Democratic Party headquarters, which were located across the street in the Emerson Hotel," he said.

"Many politicians started their day at Bickford's and they always sat at the same tables. Anybody who was anybody was there. Now, on Guilford Avenue side, the Bickford's there was called Scotland Yard because that's where the cops went," he said.

Judges Howard L. Aaron and Anthony F. DiDomenico spent so much time at 10 Downing Street, that it also became known as the court annex.

It was said that Judge Aaron tried his cases twice - in court and later at his special table in Bickford's.

"When I had my law office across the street in the Equitable Building, I'd go to Bickford's to find out what was going over an order of bacon and eggs. I had lots of experiences there," said former Gov. Marvin Mandel yesterday. "Everybody who was in the know went there, and a lot of political careers started and ended there. A lot of serious things went on there."

In 1966, when George P. Mahoney ran for governor, on election night he began pacing in his room at Democratic headquarters in the Emerson, when he suddenly turned to an aide and said, "Go across to Bickford's and learn what's really happening."

"It's a shame. Today, we no longer have colorful places like Bickford's," Mandel said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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