An abandoned West Baltimore building tells a story. Years of exposure to the weather have caused the word “carriages” to fade, but it’s still visible, a ghostly advertisement some sign painter put there circa 1890. So are the names of its former proprietors, Gross and Stoops.
It’s a tale of horses, music, politics, religion and toothpaste.
The Gross carriage establishment is a forlorn sight. Much of the surrounding neighborhood has been bulldozed. Weeds have claimed the vacant lots. And trees that once shaded residential back yards now flourish. It’s as if the old television show “The Twilight Zone” staged an episode at Saratoga Street and Carrollton Avenue. Photographers love the building and capture images of its fading, phantom-like sign in this neighborhood that seems to be disappearing before your eyes.
Because the carriage builders dissolved their partnership in 1893, it is accurate to say the slowly eroding sign has clung to the brick wall from sometime before that year.
August Gross, a native of Germany, and his partner, a man named L.A. Stoops, set up a carriage-making works in the late 1860s. Edgar Allan Poe resided not far away on Amity Street in the 1830s, and Baltimore Democratic political machine czar John S. “Frank” Kelly lived close at hand, on West Saratoga Street, then a busy east-west thoroughfare served by streetcars.
Gross perfected a light carriage with a square top and leather curtains. Known as a jager, the German word for hunter, it was a favorite of physicians.
“His company became one of the fashionable coach manufactories of 1870s and 1880s," said a Sun article, which also noted that he was a fastidious craftsman and made tallyhos, hacks and pleasure carriages.
Gross also had a voice. He sang bass in the Basilica of the Assumption Choir and had many friends in the German-American community. He loved music and sang weekly with the Harmonic Singing Society for 64 years.
The longevity of the Gross carriage-making business was assured when August’s son, Thomas, took over its operation and transitioned it into the automobile age and made truck bodies.
The elder Gross might not have approved. According to his 1933 Sun obituary, he didn’t like the gasoline-powered vehicles, which he referred to as “smoke wagons.”
His son turned to politics and became a stalwart of the Baltimore Democratic Party. Thomas Gross walked a few steps along Saratoga Street to Democratic leader Frank Kelly’s home, a compact, classic Baltimore rowhouse where the political fortunes of Democratic candidates, and many an election, were decided.
“For more than half a century he was considered one of the most popular men in politics in Maryland,” The Sun said of Thomas Gross in 1947 when he died.
As president of the United Democratic Club of the 18th Ward, Gross dispensed favors large and small. “To the underprivileged went coal, money, food, clothing and never with any effort toward making a charitable gesture," The Sun said.
Gross also held a good job, clerk of Baltimore’s criminal court, for decades. And like his father, an animal lover, he owned a Washington Boulevard pet cemetery.
The tradition of a manufacturing business in an otherwise residential neighborhood continued as the Grosses, father and son, put down the reins. By the 1930s, something called Pyrodent toothpaste was being made in their former carriage shops at 300 N. Carrollton Ave.
By the 1960s, about the time the neighborhood was being ripped apart with the condemnations for the Franklin-Mulberry corridor, known as the Highway to Nowhere, the carriage building escaped destruction and remained busy. It housed the office of Joseph L. Woods, a Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineering and Maryland Institute Rinehart School of Sculpture graduate.