Hutzler's comes briefly back to life for art installation

More than 27 years after they were shut, the doors at the old Hutzler's Howard Street department store are open again, this time for The Contemporary museum's installation featuring the work of artist Michael Jones McKean.

The downtown Hutzler complex, in its heyday, filled many buildings, including warehouses several blocks away. The art show is in what was called the Hutzler 1888 Palace Building.

In the 1950s, when I spent what seemed like days at a time here, it was known as the South Building. Its ground floor housed the dressmaking patterns department, along with tables of fabric offered for sale to those who sewed at home. A few touches of the venerable old retailer remain visible.

With bolt after bolt of fabric, pattern books and sewing notions, the cavernous space demanded a morning's worth of decisions. As a 5-year-old, I soon grew weary of watching the Art Deco revolving doors spin and looking at the trackless trolleys pass by on Howard Street. My mother, grandmother and great-aunt, who shopped as a threesome, called all the shots. My instruction was to behave, or I'd get no dessert at lunch.

There would be days when a trip to the Hutzler South Building, no matter how long, was not sufficient to the task. Maybe there'd be a break for lunch nearby, say in the store's basement luncheonette where I could hear the Baltimore & Ohio trains passing in the Howard Street Tunnel.

The basement-level restaurant was busy and its food tasty. The place was renowned for its chicken chow mein and sandwiches made on cheese bread, often toasted. Just as the building had a personality, the food had its own characteristics. The vegetable soup had a slightly sweet taste. I think it was cabbage. The potato chips were always called Saratoga chips.

Lunch ended with a chocolate ice cream soda, a power dessert that fueled additional afternoon shopping. What Hutzler's didn't stock was presumably waiting for us at Stewart's, across the street in what is now the Catholic Relief Services headquarters.

I bristled at a side trip here, because if the fabric buyer, Augusta "Gussie" Curry, was on the sales floor, my grandmother and her sister would engage in a lengthy conversation. They honored the advice offered by Miss Curry, regarded as the top retail fabric buyer in Baltimore.

There was also a third and possibly a fourth act to these excursions. The sewing machines they used were manual Willcox & Gibbs models from about 1900. The parts occasionally broke, and their leather drive belts eventually wore out.

These components were beyond the inventory of the Hutzler notions department and required a walk to the New York Sewing Machine Co. That part of the day was not so bad because the clerks there either had what my grandmother was looking for, or they didn't; there was no room for fashion deliberation.

The same could not be said of the the Morton Schenk Company on West Baltimore Street, around the corner from the Hippodrome. This place was the zipper, button and fastener capital of the universe. The place looked like the stacks at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and was filled with thousands of little boxes of buttons, all rather well arranged. Decisions, decisions here — buttons of bone, pearl, plastic, Bakelite. And what color, please? It was like a grand hardware store, where most everything sold was circular and small.

I enjoyed the Schenk detour. The people who worked here were no-nonsense professionals. The store was ancient and had a cast-iron facade, which finally blew down in a 1998 March windstorm. Schenk's lasted longer than many of the old downtown merchants. The loading ramp for the theatrical sets used in Hippodrome productions is now on its former site.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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