Maryland Art Place to celebrate anniversary by showing off its historic home

When Maryland Art Place arrived in 1986, it was the first property the organization owned.

Floor-model radios, wood console televisions and Victrolas that spun vinyl records once filled the plate glass windows of 218 W. Saratoga Street in downtown Baltimore.

With its high ceilings, broad floors and a freight elevator big enough for pianos, the store was well known as the place to fill your home with music.

That's what makes this building a perfect showroom for Maryland Art Place, the gallery and studio for visual artists.

"I fell in love with this building the day I saw it," said Amy Cavanaugh Royce, executive director of Maryland Art Place. "And this block of Saratoga Street, too. It's the most New York-looking block in Baltimore. I have family in Manhattan and it was nostalgic to me."

Maryland Art Place will celebrate its 35th anniversary Oct. 16 with a building-wide open house from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The event will be an opportunity to see a fascinating transformation of a structure that began in 1907 as the Erlanger underwear factory.

By 1921, it was Peabody Piano Co. showrooms, where you could also buy Victor-brand records and their players, Victrolas.

As technology changed, radios arrived. Many of the early receivers were built here by the Johnson brothers, who owned the property for decades and sold their televisions here, too. The Johnsons cultivated a carriage trade and made space available for the Martinet ticket agency, which sold opera and concert tickets.

There is a philanthropic footnote to 218 W. Saratoga. In 1928, prominent merchant Aaron Straus acquired this property as an investment in the heart of a then-thriving business district. When he died in 1958, Straus left $6 million to local charities.

When Maryland Art Place arrived here in 1986, it was the first property the organization owned. There were exhibition spaces on three floors.

"It's a cavernous building. It has its own aura," said Royce. "I began walking around the back stairwells and the basement and it grew on me."

Three decades plus later, artists fill the former factory and a members gallery is being built.

"We have the majority of the building leased and are keeping all leases based in arts and culture. We have a bright future," Royce said. "We are feeling it."

When Maryland Art Place moved in, its timing may have been ahead of a current downtown arts renaissance. It was certainly years ahead of the neighborhood's designation as the Bromo Arts District.

"The feeling was that some of our members were afraid to come to Saratoga Street for night openings," she said. "We moved the gallery to the harbor — and we now have moved all permanent operations back to Saratoga. We are coming out of a fog and into a rebirth of the organization."

Jordan Faye Block, a Chicago-born artist and curator, has her own contemporary gallery on the fifth floor.

"The view of downtown Baltimore here is spectacular," she said, looking out a large window. "It's my own special perch. I've been in different locations, in a Federal Hill library, at the old Load of Fun on North Avenue and in Clipper Mill. This one here on Saratoga is the best."

Block said that when she rented a nearby Park Avenue apartment, she began noticing a change in the area.

The Mount Vernon Market and Ceremony coffee shop, which opened last year, represented a signal of promising things to come, she said.

Royce agrees, saying, "I like the energy of downtown and its west side. It's got a heartbeat."

She thinks the building may have a heartbeat too, or at least a living presence. "The artists here fantasize about a ghost," she said.

Could be. In 1924, a man named William Dashner fell down the elevator shaft. He lived, but pursued "quite a lawsuit," said Royce. Perhaps he comes back on occasion to operate the elevator.

"The elevator loves to take people to the basement," Royce said.

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