Read's Building Is Far Too Fine To Bulldoze

January 10, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

I wince every time I hear another forecast for downtown Baltimore's Lexington Street. The block between Park Avenue and Howard Street, where so many Baltimoreans once shopped, is to be reconstructed as apartments and some shops, maybe a hotel, too.

I'm making a preservation pitch for the overlooked 1934 gem, the Read's drugstore at the corner of Howard and Lexington.

I don't think of Baltimore as having many truly modern buildings in the sense of streamlined art deco-moderne structures.

But the old Read Drug and Chemical Co. was booming in this period, and its owners, the Nattans family, wanted a first-class retailing lead store for its chain that once blanketed Baltimore - and much of the state, too.

They got what they wanted, their No. 1 store. It was a grand success, always busy, one of the most profitable selling spaces in Maryland. The store's lilting slogan, "Run Right to Read's," was rendered in a gorgeous metal typeface across the facade.

Read's at Howard and Lexington was a progressive, chic, modern building, trimmed with graceful windows and distinctive chromium signage. Built of light buff brick, it was the kind of place whose clean lines have walked away with architectural awards. I thought it could have been a pavilion at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress exposition. It's not too far-fetched to say it would have been at home in a European city as well.

Read's was designed by Baltimore architects Smith and May, who gave us the monumental Bank of America building (10 Light Street-Baltimore Trust Co.) just five years earlier.

Because the drugstore opened in 1934, on the 300th anniversary of Maryland's founding by settlers from the Old World, there are sailing ships set in terra cotta panels on the fourth-floor levels along both Howard and Lexington streets.

Inside, there is a dining balcony overlooking the main selling floor. The metal rail on this balcony was inset with marine animals - dolphins, if I recall - that suggest Maryland's Atlantic Coast legacy.

There was thought and creative design put into this drugstore, which was complemented by its intensive use and mercantile success.

It also fit in well with its neighbors, notably the main Hutzler Brothers' building across the street built three years earlier. The similar Hutzler chromium decorative panels are now on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

As developers and architects weigh the what's to be kept and what's to be bulldozed on Lexington Street, the case for Read's needs to be heard. About 35 years ago, much of its chrome work was hidden by some awful cover-up materials. Read's successor, the Rite Aid Corp., moved across the street to the old May-Hecht building, also designed by Smith and May.

I'm trusting that a good architect would capitalize on this structure's grace and beauty and incorporate it into the new building going on within the rest of the block. It would make a marvelous entry portal to whatever rises here.

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