Walking around the Mount Royal neighborhood

Changes sprout up at the Lyric and University of Baltimore

July 29, 2011|Jacques Kelly

The other morning I did a double take. I was coming south on Maryland Avenue and reached the old Lyric.

There, for the first time, I spotted workers installing an exterior corridor to our venerable opera house. It must have been 50 years ago that plans were first discussed about making it easier for performers to get from one side of the stage to the other. The Lyric's stage is not so deep, and with today's elaborate sets, the chorus, tenors and sopranos had to descend into the basement and reascend steps.

Modern times come to Baltimore slowly. But I also considered that it's been 50 years since I began to walk around the Mount Royal neighborhood as a curious sixth-grader taking Saturday morning classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art. In those days, an 11-year-old could investigate the city on foot — or on a dime for bus fare. The Lyric fascinated me. Its Maryland Avenue stage entrance was plastered with huge, block-printed posters for "La Traviata" or "Aida."

And yet, incongruously scattered about the neighborhood, Baltimore-style, were dinky little lunchrooms, gas stations and tire shops close by the opera house. (I shouldn't be so cynical. A few blocks south, where Maryland becomes Cathedral, customers reading newspapers and novels were sitting out on the sidewalk at the Milk and Honey one day this week. I knew it as the Medical Arts Pharmacy, a very proper 1920s drugstore.)

This summer the new Angelos law school is rising quickly at Charles and Mount Royal. 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. We watched the construction of the highway as if it were live theater.

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.

I think Pennsylvania Station is busier today than in 1961. But back then, rail passengers needed services. Henry Sansome's barbershop provided a shave and a haircut after a long trip; the Hotel Charles, later the Rittenhouse, offering lodging. Big Boys' Army and Navy stores had engineer's overalls. All stood on the site of the law school. At the corner was a Read's drugstore (once Streett's) at 1401 N. Charles. It had lunch counters and the sort of cut-rate pricing demanded by thrifty Baltimoreans.

My final heads-up on this fine morning was the site of the old Albert Gunther Hardware Co. I spent a lot of time and money here in the summer of 1979 as I began the renovation of an old Baltimore house. Door locks and hinges weren't cheap. The helpful and knowledgeable staff walked me through a complicated ordeal. We customers were all sad when Gunther's left and the building later caught fire and was demolished. The big Clark Construction signs are up; a new University of Baltimore dorm is now up to the second level.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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