Joe Hudson went looking for the right building in Baltimore to create a Halloween haunted house experience.
He wound up on North Gay Street at a historic structure whose facade reads: "The Great House of Isaac Benesch."
He and his crew of 50 actors and other workers have transformed the vacant Oldtown department store into a seasonal entertainment venue that mixes a funhouse experience with a dose of Baltimore history and a dollop of theatrical terror.
The Nevermore Haunt opened three weekends ago. It's open Thursday through Sunday evenings and, of course, on Halloween night. After that, it closes for the year.
"I've been filling the place," Hudson said. "We've had 1,000 persons through so far, with two more weekends before Halloween."
There's no escaping that the 500 block of N. Gay St., also called the Oldtown Mall, is vacant and depressing. One of the oldest shopping areas in Baltimore, it was extensively rebuilt to critical acclaim after the 1968 riots.
Then-mayor William Donald Schaefer hailed its rebirth in 1975 when it became a pedestrian mall festooned with planters and pylons. Acres of public parking were added around the old Belair Market.
This bold experiment in city planning failed. Several years ago, the city demolished the market buildings after store upon store closed.
The space where The Nevermore Haunt is operating was most recently Kaufman's, a clothing store.
Historically it was the Isaac Benesch store. After he died in 1910, his descendants — he had seven children — went on to operate their own business, often selling furniture. A 1905 ad in The Baltimore Sun boasts of "Furniture for the millions" and notes "no class distinction. We are friends of all the people."
Gay Street is a different thoroughfare today from the era when the No. 15 streetcar ran alongside its curbs. In 1900, The Baltimore Sun described the Benesch store's "annual fall opening" with a ladies suit and cloak department and its "large force of tailors and designers."
Hudson, a mechanical engineer, paid $225,000 for the four-story department store in 2014. He invested another $300,000 in a sprinkler system, added to the electrical service and created the haunted house labyrinth on the first floor.
"The building had great bones and high ceilings," he said.
He went into the haunted-house entertainment business when he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"I wanted this place to have Baltimore connections. We have a Baltimore Fire, a brick-lined sewer, a rat, a pier and ship, and a Fells Point-like street scene with gaslights," he said as a thunder machine boomed every 20 seconds.
The street is home to several abandoned commercial structures. While there is a surviving pawnshop, a barber, a beauty supply business and several other small businesses, many of the 19th-century buildings together appear a ghost town.
"I'd love to see some more businesses here," Hudson said. "We talked about bringing in food trucks, but I think it would be better if someone opened a food business."
"We've got plenty of free parking," he said, gesturing to the Mott Street parking lot. On a weekday, the expansive lot was empty.
Hudson acknowledges the Oldtown Mall and Gay Street are something of an urban Twilight Zone, even though downtown office buildings are nearby and Johns Hopkins Hospital is not far away.
"When people ask us where we are, I tell them we run a shuttle bus from Fells Point," he said. "They like that."