There is one fewer empty building near the Lexington Market and Hippodrome Theatre this summer. The grand old Drovers’ and Mechanics’ National Bank that stood empty for decades is being made into a Springhill Suites. The 1894 financial institution (it was chartered in 1874), named for the livestock drovers who brought their sheep and cattle into Baltimore in the 19th century, is being transformed after a long period of disuse.
Whiting Turner construction crews, following plans of Moseley architects, have been at work for months at the structure where tellers hung a permanently closed sign nearly 40 years ago.
This is a busy August on Eutaw Street even if Oriole Park at Camden Yards is not doing much business with baseball fans. The bank is being brought back to life; the Lexington Market reconstruction, at Eutaw and Lexington, is progressing in full swing; and the Four Ten Lofts, at Mulberry Street, are out of the ground. That’s activity on a street where old Baltimore seemed to retreat to take a nap.
This is an old part of intact Baltimore — the Great Fire of 1904 spared the immediate area, as did Baltimore’s tear-it-all down urban renewal enthusiasms of the 1960s. It’s a commercial neighborhood that speaks to the prosperity that Baltimore enjoyed 125 years ago. Just across the street from the Drovers’ and Mechanics’ are the old Baltimore Equitable Society and the Everyman Theatre.
Today we call it Market Center or the Bromo Arts District. It has taken a while for things to happen here. The Drovers’ project was first announced in 2007, a few years after the Hippodrome reopened as a theatrical playhouse.
Not every building here was saved. In 1964, demolition began at Ford’s Grand Opera House, today a parking garage. Ford’s was the scene of the 1872 Democratic presidential convention, at which Horace Greeley was nominated. Cole Porter’s musical, “Kiss Me, Kate” was set at Ford’s. The show included a song, “Too Darn Hot,” a jab at Baltimore’s weather but nevertheless a catchy tune
The Drovers’ and Mechanics’ had a pedigree. Its current banking house was built in 1893-1894 to give the expanding bank larger quarters. It was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry, who also created the Emerson Drug Bromo Seltzer Tower, two blocks to the south. The Sun rhapsodized about architect Sperry’s “bold and vigorous treatment with refinement of detail.”
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It’s really a large brown stone bank with a proper, stolid-looking appearance. It’s one of those structures where you would feel safe entrusting a cash payroll or a life’s savings.
The Sun’s account of its construction noted that a section of the banking floor would be reserved for ladies who wanted to clip negotiable coupons in private or remove their jewels from a safe-deposit box.
The bank once had a lot of commercial accounts related to Baltimore’s garment-making industry. Its vice president was Leopold Strouse, who owned a successful wholesale clothing business and gave a Semitic library to the Johns Hopkins University.
Strouse had a working relationship with Sperry, the architect, whom he had hired to design the Oheb Shalom Temple on Eutaw Place. That structure is now the home of the Prince Hall Masons.
The bank is being transformed by developer Shaffin Jetha, who converted the old Patterson Park High School into apartments and undertook the restoration of the old Franklin Street YMCA into the Hotel Indigo, curiously, also a Sperry design.
In addition to a Springhill Suites, the project will include a new construction project, Prosper on Fayette. This new building will house student apartments and is a short walk to the University of Maryland downtown Baltimore campus. The Prosper on Fayette site was once an Elks Lodge and, decades ago, was a gathering point for the German community at the Germania Club.