It was 95 years ago that the name Bernheimer disappeared as a Baltimore retailing legend. The big downtown department store sold out to the May Company that year, leaving behind a collection of solidly constructed buildings where you could once buy everything from a hairpin to a fur coat, and maybe some World War I surplus cavalry horses, too.
One of the Bernheimer properties downtown is slated to become 107 apartments, adding to the developing residential neighborhood made of older commercial buildings where Baltimoreans worked and shopped for decades. The former department store at 306 W. Fayette St., opened in March 1908, is a project of owner-developer Patrick Grace, who heads the investment group taking on this apartment conversion.
“We are prepping for the start of construction now,” said Grace, who also owns the old Fidelity and Deposit Building, another downtown landmark, at Charles and Lexington streets.
Initial work has begun cleaning out the interior of the West Fayette Street building, where the first priority will be a new roof.
“I see our market as being students from the University of Maryland schools,” Grace said of his project that is among several in the works near the new Lexington Market. He would like to have the Bernheimer Building ready for occupancy by the start of the 2023 academic year.
The story of the building provides a lesson in colorful Baltimore retail selling. The business was founded in 1888 by two brothers, Ferdinand and Herman Bernheimer, the same year the older and better known Hutzler Brothers opened its Palace Building around the corner.
No shopper ever confused the two retailers. Bernheimer’s never sought the carriage trade. It courted the little buyer and did so with enthusiasm. The store, which originally fronted on Lexington Street, a few steps away from Lexington Market, succeeded by selling in volume.
Along the way, it became an object of colorful derision. Customers often made fun of the store, and its outrageous ads that paid their way in the pages of Baltimore’s five daily newspapers. Class-conscious shoppers would inform the Bernheimer delivery staff to park the wagon (first horse-drawn, later electric powered trucks) around the corner so neighbors would not observe the origin of a new bedroom set.
The two brothers were proud of the Fayette Street store when it opened in 1908. They hired architect Charles Cassell and installed Otis elevators, Babcock & Wilcox boilers and Westinghouse generators. The marble trim was blue Vermont stone. A Sun headline called the premises, “A city in Itself.”
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Some news reports said that 100,000 people visited the store on opening day, perhaps a grand exaggeration. Mayor J. Barry Mahool led the list of dignitaries, which also included the sons of A.S. Abell, founder of The Sun. The store’s competitors also took the grand tour — Max Hochschild, Louis Kohn, Jacob Hutzler, Louis Gutman and Leon Coblens, among others.
The stores aisles were filled with merchandise on opening day, but also with huge floral tributes sent by subcontractors and other well-wishers. String orchestras on a store balcony played until the last sightseer left and the key went in the front door.
The store liked promotions and those who made it in the first day received a blue china mug as a souvenir. These mugs still turn up at antique sales.
The store’s location on Fayette Street may not have been the founding brothers’ first choice. Shoppers preferred Howard and Lexington streets. The owners knew this all too well and had a tunnel built under Marion Street (actually a large alley in the rear), as well as a raised enclosed walkway, to link the Fayette Street store with a smaller property they had at the ever-popular Lexington Street. The now abandoned Marion Street tunnel is one of the many short underground passageways that occasionally gets rediscovered.
Bernheimer’s Fayette Street store had a fourth-floor restaurant, a commercial bakery and other traditional department appointments. Its basement had a complete meat and grocery department. The basement was also the place where the store once sold surplus ex-U.S. Army horses from World War I. The cavalry chargers wound up on Baltimore and Anne Arundel County farms.
It all worked out so well that in 1925, the prospering firm cut the ribbon on a new million-dollar headquarters at that once magical selling corner of Howard and Lexington. Bernheimer also began bringing in more expensive lines of goods, a policy that Baltimore shoppers ultimately rejected. Going high hat just did not fit, and on Sept. 9, 1927, the Bernheimer flags came down. The grand enterprise changed into the hands of the May Co., the national firm that has remained in Baltimore, under various names, including Hecht-May, Hecht’s and Macy’s.
The Fayette Street store continued on until it was made into the men’s department. The whole operation closed in 1989.