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A new Cross Street Market space echoes a hall’s history

The west end of Cross Street Market now has a new rooftop seafood deck and bar.
The west end of Cross Street Market now has a new rooftop seafood deck and bar. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Watershed, a rooftop seafood restaurant and crab house atop the Cross Street Market, opened this spring.

The new upper-level space, overlooking South Charles Street, occupies a spot long forgotten in the market’s history. For decades, until a fire in 1951 claimed it, the market had a neighborhood meeting hall, a Victorian-style headhouse where South Baltimoreans climbed stairs to gather for the events of the day. (The ground floor was the seafood, or fish end of the market.)

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But with of the arrival of the Atlas Restaurant Group’s new component, it’s time to tell the story of what happened upstairs at the corner of Cross and Charles streets years ago.

The hall was similar in design to one that has made it through the years at the Hollins Market, in Southwest Baltimore at Hollins and S. Carrollton streets.

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The Cross Street Market Hall was not glamorous or overly improved. It was large enough to fit a community basketball court and a coal-fired stove for heat. It accommodated several hundred people. It was brick while the market was wooden.

The hall operated independently of the food selling. It could be open on nights and on non-market days.

While the market was constructed and opened in 1846, the hall arrived a few years later.

In 1889, the hall was a gathering point for Democratic mayoral candidate Robert C. Davidson. His committee festooned the chamber with patriotic bunting and a portrait of the candidate showing his “side whiskers and turned down collar,” The Sun reported. Dickinson’s Band blasted out “bright and catchy airs,” the article states, including “Dixie” and “Maryland, My Maryland.”

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The mayor’s campaign chair arrived and “began to hold a lovefest with a colony of good democrats up in the amen corner seats on the left hand side.” The political speeches went on for hours.

The hall may have helped Davidson at the polls. He was elected and went on to get Baltimore going with a mass transit system, then involving cable cars. He also got a bill through to approve construction of the Howard Street rail tunnel.

The Salvation Army filled the hall on Christmas Day 1899. It was now so well established as a neighborhood center that hundreds of hungry persons descended upon it for a food basket or entire dinner. The Sun reported “a fierce attack upon the viands.”

Those who showed up with empty baskets, to be filled by the Salvation Army workers, “brought notes from clergymen, policemen or physicians stating that the families represented were deserving or in needy circumstances.”

A line formed at the market hall door as early as 7 a.m. Christmas Day. People carried home ham, beef or mutton, vegetables, tea, sugar, a pie, apples and oranges, and a little candy.

“The majority of the basket applicants were children,” The Sun reported. “Three poor mothers sent requests simply for milk for their infants, one of the little ones being only three days old.”

A group of sibling children arrived. “All bore evidence of a careful application of soap and water of which they seemed immensely proud.”

As the day ended, a crowd of men stood at the Charles Street door to the hall, “awaiting a meal they were not to get.”

The old hall changed in use over the years. It went from a meeting space to a recreation center as the popularity of indoor basketball grew. Its hardwood floor was just large enough for games.

The young men who competed here were South Baltimore residents who walked to the hall. Their teams’ names did not reflect any well-known spots within the community. A 1902 Sun report said that the Newarks battled the Crescents.

The old hall and market building caught fire in the early morning hours of May 19, 1951. The fire was so intense that 13 adjoining commercial buildings ignited and created a temporarily bombed-out commercial scene in South Baltimore.

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