Artist and designer Betty Cooke, spry at 95, escorts a visitor into an archive space in the Village of Cross Keys where she preserves photos and newspaper articles. Each box is arranged as meticulously as the items she sells in her nearby business, The Store Ltd.
She keeps here the story of Tyson Street. In 1946, when Cooke bought a tumbledown 1830s rowhouse and joined fellow pioneer fixer-uppers, it was a pivotal time in her life. She kept a lamb in her tiny backyard and worked at her jewelry workbench. Eventually she and her husband/business partner, William Steinmetz, expanded into adjoining buildings.
One of the Baltimore Sun articles she preserved called Tyson Street “a modest sized compound of Greenwich Village, the Left Bank and old Baltimore.” A few years later, reporter Janetta Somerset visited the street for one of its annual open houses and remarked that with its colorful brick facades and outdoor tables and umbrellas, Tyson Street “looked like a setting for a light opera.” She also wrote that Cooke’s house was “scrubbed modern.”
Cooke recalled one of the Saturdays when the neighbors opened their doors to visitors (ticket proceeds benefited a local charity), but her house was not ready for the heavy foot traffic.
“We decided to paint the floors in alternating stripes of white and orange,” she said. “But the paint didn’t quite dry. We had to use planks. People loved it.”
She described how she first encountered this sub-neighborhood that has one foot in residential Mount Vernon and another in commercial Howard Street as a student at what later became Maryland Institute College of Art.
Tyson Street, a short back street of matchbook-sized classic 1830s Baltimore houses, was in severe decline. Even though housing was in short supply after World War II, Tyson Street sat largely vacant.
“As an Institute student I rented a $10-a-month studio, four flights up, on Cathedral, which was a very proper street,” she said. “And I soon discovered Read Street, where sophisticated people visited the Betty Patterson bakery. I found this little place had it all — the best beef in Baltimore was sold at the Independent Beef Co., just around the corner on Howard Street. Years later, I sat on the floor for an early screening of John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’ there.”
Just down the street, the Medical Arts Building, full of physicians and dentists, drew patients and brought a stream of visitors to the neighborhood.
Cooke, who was teaching the Institute by then, espoused the idea of taking an old Baltimore home, cleaning out the accumulated debris and doing a minimal but imaginative rehabilitation.
“We didn’t have fancy kitchens then. I had a kerosene heater and working fireplaces," Cooke said. “My mother took one look at the house and didn’t know what to say.”
Cooke sold her jewelry and other goods out of the row home. She and Steinmetz opened The Store at Cross Keys in 1965 at the urging of customer and developer James Rouse.
But she remembered the annual Tyson Street open houses as hugely popular events on the Baltimore calendar before there was Artscape or a renovated harbor.
“One year we made $30,000 from the event,” she said.
She also said that just about the only regrets she had about the experience was that Tyson Street remained an isolated example of do-it-yourself rebuilding of Baltimore.
“There were plenty of similar houses, largely vacant, on the west side of Howard Street in the 1950s,” she said. “We had thoughts of buying them and making little courts around the houses. It didn’t happen. They were viewed as slums and all torn down for either the Sutton Place apartment house or the State Office Building area.”
She said that visitors to the annual Tyson Street open house were fascinated by the miniature houses with their tiny kitchens, steep stairs and backyards.
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“We generally landscaped the day before the tour,” she said. “It was all pretty casual. I had a 1953 black MG that I parked at my front door. I loved that car and I still have it.”