Site for new law school was once a center for the sale of automobiles

August 09, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

The parking lot at the northeast corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue is due to become the University of Baltimore's new law school building. Attorney and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has made a major gift to the school, and the Abell Foundation is backing an architectural competition for the very visible downtown crossroads.

I can recall when this corner was not a parking lot but contained shops and businesses, all of which were far from glamorous. They were part of the fabric of the upper Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood and were handy little parts of city living.

You went to Mount Royal Avenue to buy your car. The University of Baltimore's building at the northwest corner was once Kelly Buick; but there was also a Studebaker dealership on the eastern edges of the law school site. Across Mount Royal Avenue, in what is now called the Town Building, was the elegant Zell Packard showroom. Not far away were Weiss Motors, Motor Sales and City Chevrolet. Auto parts businesses and adjacent firms also dotted what has become an academic and cultural district.

When the Jones Falls Expressway was built, it was necessary to slice off a good chunk of the land at Charles and Mount Royal, thus reducing the footprint of the law school site.

One of my earliest memories surrounds a fire at the old Studebaker dealership, which by the 1950s had become the O'Toole Tire Co. It burned one day - we could smell the rubber burning in Charles Village - and my grandfather took me to watch the action. We also used to watch passing trains at St. Paul and Mount Royal - there was once a terraced park laid out with formal flower beds and benches there, but the expressway claimed that little urban oasis, too.

If you bought a car here, you could also buy a railroad ticket at Pennsylvania Station, whose numerous passengers needed auxiliary services. Henry Sansome's barber shop provided a shave and a haircut after a long trip; the Hotel Charles, later the Rittenhouse, gave passengers a place to stay. Cohen's offered shirts, and Big Boys' Army and Navy stores had engineer's overalls. All stood on the site of the law school.

Two classic Baltimore businesses stood here as well. Read's drugstore (once Streett's) at 1401 N. Charles was perhaps the busiest and best-known commercial entity. It had lunch counters and the sort of cut-rate pricing so highly favored by thrifty Baltimoreans.

Inexpensive food available in the area also fit local pocketbooks. There was a White Coffee Pot restaurant at 1423 N. Charles, but it had competitors - Chen's China House, the Blue Ridge, the New Palm and Charles Cafe. Railroad travelers and others could get a bite to eat - and something to drink. During Prohibition in the 1920s, the Rettaliata family had a grocery store in this block. After repeal, the owners got a license to sell beer and wine.

The railroad dominated the immediate neighborhood. It had something of the hard edge of an Edward Hopper painting. And in all those bars, hotels and chow houses, I wonder now how many employees would have assisted you with an extra-legal bet at Pimlico or Bowie?

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