Today, the building in the 2100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue has boards covering door and window frames. But it was once the Sphinx, the members-only nightclub that for decades was the place to see and be seen for Black Baltimore.
“It was a really classy place to be,” said Charles R. Tilghman, who spent many days of his youth in the club founded by his grandfather, Charles P. Tilghman, who opened it in 1946.
Men removed their hats while women wore diamonds and furs. “That day and era is just about gone,” recalled Tilghman.
Tilghman wants to make sure the city remembers it. He carries with him a photo album documenting the club’s history, and a key card that members used to open the door. Last fall, he held an event to honor his grandfather’s legacy — Mayor Brandon Scott, whose grandparents were regulars, attended.
In an era of strict segregation, Black Baltimore could enjoy “The Avenue,” as residents called the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, with its lounges, theaters and clubs. No place shone brighter than the Sphinx, the preferred spot for politicians, judges, lawyers and other Black professionals.
Here, politicians made toasts, Sam Cooke sang and comedian Redd Foxx got belly laughs.
Musicians enjoyed playing at the Sphinx because of its personal atmosphere, said Rosa Pryor-Trusty, a former music promoter who booked shows at the club.
“It was like a private home away from home. Everybody knew each other,” she said — and if they didn’t, they soon became friends.
In its heyday, the club made more than $1 million a year.
But its founder, who died in 1988, had grown up “dirt poor” in East Baltimore, recalled his grandson.
“He didn’t have a formal education like high school or a college degree,” Tilghman said, but he was “an economic genius.”
His training happened on the job.
“He worked at a famous bar in East Baltimore — the Club Ambassador. It was a hot club back in the day,” Tilghman said.
The Ambassador’s proprietor mentored the young Tilghman, teaching him the ins and outs of the nightclub business. He even helped him buy a building of his own on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Tilghman opened the Club Manhattan in 1941.
Tilghman shut down the Club Manhattan after being stabbed during an attempted robbery. He decided to reopen it as a members-only nightclub, according to his grandson. The plan worked.
“Everybody that was somebody wanted to be a member of the Sphinx Club,” said Tilghman.
The Sphinx became more than just a social club, hosting voter registration drives, according to Tilghman. While other Baltimore area lounges had to close on Election Day, its status as a private club allowed it to remain open. Politicians gathered there to watch returns and celebrate victories — or drown their sorrows at losses.
With his wealth, the elder Tilghman supported his surrounding community and local businesses. At one point he provided the funding to start Jet Food, the area’s first Black-owned supermarket chain, which later became Super Pride Supermarkets.
“It was a tough business,” recalled his grandson. “He made more money pouring drinks in the bar.”
The Sphinx — like the Pennsylvania Avenue business district that surrounded it — fell into decline in the 1960s and onward as many patrons moved to the suburbs. It finally shuttered for good in 1992, a few years after Tilghman died, though there were attempts to revive it in later years.
The City of Baltimore eventually took ownership of the building and adjacent properties. In 2009, then-mayor Sheila Dixon approved a $4.1 million plan to transform it into a museum and restaurant celebrating Negro League baseball teams and players, but those plans fell through.
Today, the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation owns the former Sphinx. Tilghman said he dreams of turning the building into a nightclub again, if he can find the investors to help make it happen. Of course, he’ll call it the Sphinx.
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“You have to save an institution like that,” he said.