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Baltimore’s Marian House to continue mission of Woman’s Industrial Exchange

A Baltimore institution has made a bold transition.

Charles Street’s Woman’s Industrial Exchange now will be owned and operated by another nonprofit, the Marian House, which assists women in transition. It should be a worthy use for the venerable corner rowhouse.

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“I am ecstatic about the transfer. It’s a perfect fit,” said Jenny Hope, president of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange board. “I had known of the Marian House and its good work since my days of working in Better Waverly.”

Marian House, founded jointly by the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, currently has two campuses, one on Gorsuch Avenue in the former St. Bernard Church convent and a second on Old York Road, at the former Blessed Sacrament School, convent and rectory. Through successful community fundraising, they hired architects and contractors to take unused properties and give them a new mission. Marian House serves 150 women and 80 to 100 children.

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“We are incredibly blessed,” said Katie Allston Marian House’s executive director. “I was honored, flattered and humbled that the board of the Exchange wanted us to continue their mission: to help women make the transition from dependence to independence. To get women back into the workforce.”

She said the property transfer involves the 19th century structure that includes seven apartments as well as retail spaces.

“We are used to working with repurposed historic buildings,” Allston said.

She said it was premature to discuss what uses could be made of the Charles Street building’s retail spaces and former tea room. A takeout restaurant, Jack and Zach’s, operated until this past year in a basement-level luncheonette area.

“It’s definitely an exciting idea for us to have a presence in the central part of town,” said Allston.

The Woman’s Industrial Exchange was founded in the 1880s when a group of Baltimore women wanted to find a way for ladies who needed to make a bit of extra money in a legal, genteel way.

They set up salesroom at the corner of Charles and Pleasant streets. The industrious but strictly anonymous workers made children’s dresses, christening gowns, quilts and other hand goods. When an item sold, their price tags carried codes that enabled bookkeepers to write checks for the consignors.

In time, the board of the Exchange opened a tea room restaurant. It was a place where the clock had no hands. Was it 1950? Was it 2005, when the last homemade rolls got served?

Waitresses who had worked in Baltimore’s old department stores found they flourished at the Exchange Tea Room after the big stores had closed. Many were well past a normal retirement age but they loved their jobs and bantered with repeat customers. Former Baltimore Mayor J. Harold Grady had a window table. Staffers from the Enoch Pratt Free Library filled a couple of tables daily.

The waitresses wore pale blue uniforms and white aprons tied with bows. The signature dish was the chicken salad, served with deviled egg and tomato aspic. The chicken soup was delicious too. Many patrons felt the homemade lemon meringue pie was the best that Baltimore could offer. For the less indulgent, there was a smaller variant, a lemon tart. Where else could you find buckwheat or Charlotte russe cakes?

The place was spare and clean. The tea room had a few marble fireplace mantles, a black-and-white linoleum floor and a ceiling full of vintage hanging light fixtures. It could have been a dining hall in a religious school. The china looked as if it belonged to a grandmother.

Helen Weiss, president of the volunteer Exchange board, articulated in a Sun article how she described the Exchange: “The Woman’s Exchange is not a theme restaurant. We don’t have a neon sign and phony anything.”

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