Market Would Add Storied Past To Revived North Ave.

November 23, 2008|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

No matter how many pieces of art and sculpture or funny street lamps are installed along North Avenue, it's still that pair of 1920s Mediterranean-style stucco towers that anchor this part of Baltimore. They are the twin architectural flourishes atop the old North Avenue Market, which had an uncelebrated 80th birthday this week.

The privately owned market opened Nov. 16, 1928. The Sun reported that between 50,000 and 75,000 people "thronged" its "great room at all times" as an orchestra serenaded those who were out for a first gawk. A vintage exterior market photo reveals elongated limousines parked at its doors, an indication of the kind of trade the place sought and attained. Its location astride six busy streetcar lines helped plenty. There were popularly priced restaurants and movie theaters nearby.

The market was a success for the next 30 years or so, when Baltimoreans patronized Corcoran's and McGrain's produce, Hooper's seafood, Buchheister and Fox confectioners, Waskey and Mitchell's meats, Kreiner poultry, Silber's bakery - and let's not forget Mrs. Minnick's pickles.

I spent some time visiting its vast hall in the 1960s, when the trade had moved on and the place was filled with vacant stalls, but the 1920s atmosphere endured under what seemed like a sky of glass windows. It was an early home of the annual Smith College Club book sale. The market had lost the curbside limousines, but its nice 1920s architectural touches stayed - the khaki-colored stucco exterior walls, the bronze weather vanes atop the towers, the exterior balconies and the flagstaffs.

The market was the newest - and in many ways, the best-built - of Baltimore's halls for enterprising food merchants. But, lacking municipal subsidies, it also declined faster.

The market was not in robust financial shape when a fire broke out at Woodlawn Lunch inside the building on a Sunday night in August 1968. The six-alarm blaze drew about 800 onlookers.

My family was on vacation at the time, but the fire was such big news that our neighbors mailed us the news clippings. The market, as a sales arena for small vendors, never reopened. A supermarket opened in some of the space along Maryland Avenue, and the larger retail tenants, Read's Drugs (later Rite Aid) and a Murphy's five-and-dime, remained for a while. A few ex-market merchants stuck to the neighborhood and reopened nearby.

They are now gone, but with fresh energy building for a rethought Charles North, the 80-year-old market building might be able to reinvent itself, with the lead being taken by the Wind Up Space, a bar.

As plans and ideas for the Charles North community were being announced recently, I spoke with Carolyn Frenkil, who owns the market with her husband, James, and business partner Michael Schecter.

She said she'd like to see a bookstore, glass- and jewelry-making studios, a performance space, a restaurant and a food market.

The old market is a sprawling space, 40,000 square feet of it on the first floor. There are 21 unused bowling lanes on the second floor - bowling quietly endured at this address long after other businesses had left.

"I'd love to put a rathskeller in the basement," she said. "And we could also use the roof and second floor and show movies against a wall in the summer."

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