Old drugstore gets new life as the Milk and Honey Market

It opens today at old Medical Arts Pharmacy

November 05, 2010|Jacques Kelly

I looked at the floor's hexagonal ceramic tiles as I walked into 815 Cathedral St. and thought, "I know this place very well." For the first four decades of my life, this was the Medical Arts Pharmacy in Mount Vernon, a place of refuge after a session at the dentist or medical specialist. As of Saturday, its doors will be open again as the Milk and Honey Market, described as a "specialty food market and coffee bar."

On a visit Friday, I saw the boxes of heirloom tomatoes arrive at the landmark former drugstore and soda fountain. I saw a deli case stacked with French-style country pates and Italian hams. And Mau Daigle, one of its owners, assured me this new purveyor of artisanal breads and, yes, local honey, would be ready. Will it be 100 percent ready? I'd give it another week or so.

We've been waiting a while for a business like this to take the place of the old Medical Arts Pharmacy. The new market looks good, very good. Even the new wooden cases for the jams, sauces, crackers, oatmeal, granola, olive oil and spices recalled the days when the drugstore's owner, Stephen Provenza, lavishly filled its walls with his personal collection of antique European ceramic pharmacy jars.

Daigle, with his wife, Annie, acted as consultants to open the market. As it turned out, I've been past their first Milk and Honey, in West Philadelphia on Baltimore Avenue, on numerous occasions on happy outings on the No. 34 streetcar. I also spoke with market co-owners Dana Valery and her husband, Ernst, who are also part of the team ready to take on the old Chesapeake Restaurant property just north of Penn Station. Dana will run the market once all the shelves are stocked.

Ernst Valery provided a tour of the building, constructed in 1927 as the Medical Arts, that somehow morphed into the Professional Arts. I recall from childhood its doorman in a braided coat, a line of taxis at the door and its spotless, almost antiseptically clean marble and tile hallways. When I returned this week, after the building's kind and gentle conversion as apartments, I saw a cleaning staff as vigilant as anything seen in 1962.

I cannot say it was an institution that Baltimoreans loved. Who likes to get a filling or have a tooth pulled? But we respected the medical attention here and professional standards of the people employed. This was one serious temple of the healing arts. My mother and aunt, who often went along with me to reinforce standards of deportment, breathed more easily once they had overseen a trip to the dental chair.

Once business had been attended to, we all cut and ran to the Medical Arts Pharmacy on the Cathedral Street side of the building. The final Coke gurgled through the fountain dispenser in the summer of 1992, marking the end of the milkshakes and malts, chocolate sodas and shrimp salad sandwiches. The magnificent marble soda fountain was retired at age 65. Its Vermont- and Tennessee-quarried components were disassembled and taken to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, where they remain in a place of honor.

To the end, the soda fountain was a shrine to chocolate sundaes and foamy milkshakes. It possessed all the essentials of a classic fountain, including a staff of four women who made the fountain treats. The fountain was marble, with a thick, dark-green slab for a counter and a high white-veined base. These heavy stone panels concealed the plumbing and refrigeration works. There were large mirrors and milled wooden trim, stained dark brown. The seating booths were lighted by small art deco fixtures.

There were stainless-steel pumps and bins for syrups and toppings. The individual nameplates listed chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, cherry, raspberry and pineapple. I thought of how food tastes alter. The current emphasis at 815 Cathedral will be organic produce, cheeses you can't find at most stores and what is described as a "wide assortment of charcuterie."


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