Sprucing up Charles Street starts with phone company building

August 13, 2010

Those of us of a certain age can recall Charles Street when there were dozens of shops and consumer oriented services in the blocks between Fayette and Centre Streets, the area addressed by Janet Heller ("Charles Street could use a little TLC," Commentary, Aug 11).

In particular, in the 300 block in the 1950s on the east side of the street, there were two furriers, a TV store, a silversmith, a purveyor of antique jewelry, a camera store, a men's' haberdashery, two sellers of fine china and stationery (one was my family's 120-year-old business at 317) and Minors, a favorite stop for shoppers at lunch time.

Then came the C&P Telephone Co., who acquired half of the frontage south of Pleasant Street on the east side. Their executives represented to the resident merchants that they would build an attractive building and employ hundreds of telephone operators who would shop the street. And for several years the executives were true to their word. Shops were cleared, the building was built and the employees of the phone company were on the street shopping. In addition shoppers came north on Charles Street as Charles Center construction began, up the west side to Saratoga where traffic counts indicated they crossed to the east side. For years there was a traffic officer stationed at Charles and Saratoga to manage the pedestrian traffic.

Then in their wisdom, the telephone company moved the operator functions to their new building in the Inner Harbor at Charles and Pratt. In place of the operators the building in the 300 block was filled with machinery and switching equipment where a few technicians and engineers worked, hardly the market served by the Charles Street merchants. To appease the merchants, for a few years, the company moved its pay bill function into the street front. Really. Subsequently, floors were added to accommodate more equipment, windows were removed and the grotesque black facing was added in the interest of added security.

So today, instead of interesting store fronts, we have several hundred feet of nothingness. Facing on Charles Street is the back of the building. Employees and others entering the building do so from the St. Paul Place entrance. Customers leaving restaurants after dark on the west side of the street are faced with this scary black monstrosity.

I suggest, Ms Heller, that any TLC for the street must start with the Phone Company building as we acknowledge that there is hardly a more blatant miscarriage of land use anywhere in Baltimore.

Isaac C. Lycett

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