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Cultured Pearl closes its doors

Mexican cafe's owner says Hollins St. area lacks city's support.

By Edward Gunts

Sun architecutre critic

October 20, 1998

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Sixteen months after the H. L. Mencken House closed to the public, another Southwest Baltimore attraction bearing the writer's name has shut down.

Short of money and customers, owners of Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe closed the restaurant permanently Saturday. Co-owner Ted Getzel blamed the restaurant's demise on perceptions of the area, competition from other city restaurants, and lack of support from the city and state for the surrounding community, part of a federally designated empowerment zone.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said yesterday that several communities have suffered through the jockeying for empowerment zone funds. He vowed to seek an update on why the money has been delayed.

"I am concerned about how the money from the empowerment zone is administered," Bell said. "The criteria associated with getting access to the money isn't clear. I certainly would like to see the money dispensed faster. The money needs to get out to the people."

An atmospheric Mexican restaurant and art gallery, Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe had symbolized revitalization efforts around Hollins Market and drew patrons from the region. But in the past eight years, Getzel said, patronage dropped by 50 percent.

"I did all I could to save this place and the jobs of my wonderful and talented employees," he said Saturday. "We just couldn't reverse the economic and social riptides pulling this piece of the city into the deeps. I have no more financial resources. I have to close."

Twenty employees lost their jobs. The Union Square and Southwest Baltimore communities lost a popular meeting spot, known for its hot sauces, provocative art and spirited poetry readings.

"Hopefully, people will carry on," Getzel said. "But at the Cultured Pearl the heart stops beating."

The cafe at 1114 Hollins St. is the latest of a half-dozen restaurants near Hollins Market to cease operations in recent years. Its departure leaves Union Square and Southwest Baltimore residents with Glen & Nan's Beer Garden Cafe at 1101 Hollins St. and Sushi Cafe at 1120 Hollins St. as the only nonchain restaurants within walking distance.

"A lot of people know the neighborhood by that restaurant more than anything else," said Edward Knowles, an architect and interior designer who lives in the 1600 block of Hollins St. "It was a community meeting place, where the food was good and reasonably priced. We're going to miss it."

John Ott, director of the nearby B & O Railroad Museum on Pratt Street, said the closing is "a very ominous sign" for the neighborhood. "It's going to leave a real void," he said.

Getzel and co-owner Stephen Loewentheil opened the restaurant in March 1984 as the Cultured Pearl Cafe, soon adding "Mencken's" because it was close to Mencken's former home at 1524 Hollins St.

Mencken's three-story brick rowhouse on Union Square opened as a public museum in 1983. It closed last year when the Baltimore City Life Museums, which the house was affiliated with, fell on hard financial times.

The restaurant's Mexican fare and art atmosphere attracted a eclectic mix of students, artists and others, and restaurants such as Gypsy's Cafe, the Market Cafe, and the Tell Tale Hearth opened nearby. Getzel said his restaurant's best years were 1990 and 1991, when he served about 1,000 people a week.

Getzel became president of the Southwest Merchants and Artisans Guild and sought to recast the abandoned community hall above Hollins Market as a community arts center. He also coined the phrase SoWeBo (for Southwest Baltimore), in a show of solidarity with Soweto in South Africa.

He said neighbors have remained supportive but misperceptions about crime, which has fallen in Southwest Baltimore over the past 18 months, have kept others away.

"We have competitors in areas that are perceived as less dangerous, like Canton and Hampden and Roland Park," he said.

Getzel also echoed long-standing complaints of neighborhood merchants about a lack of support from the city and the board that governs the $100 million federal empowerment zone. While the city's 1994 application for the zone designation included plans to rebuild Hollins Hall, Getzel said, the project has not been funded.

Getzel said the city seems "to have money to support construction of hotels in the Inner Harbor, to make it easy to open the ESPN Zone and the Hard Rock Cafe. But as far as small, individual businesses that make the city an interesting place to live, there don't seem to be any resources."