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One more effort to revive Howard and Lexington, Baltimore’s lost shopping nexus

Baltimoreans flock to stores at the intersection of Howard and Lexington streets in February 1960.
Baltimoreans flock to stores at the intersection of Howard and Lexington streets in February 1960. (Baltimore Sun File Photo)

Consider why Baltimore retains such a sentimental attachment to what has been renamed the Superblock: Lexington Street, from Park Avenue to Howard Street was once the city’s bustling crossroads.

In a 1920 Sun article, there was an estimate that one in eight city residents passed this magic intersection on a busy pre-Christmas Saturday. (It’s not surprising — what other options did people have for shopping?) With a police officer on each of the four corners, each man held a mechanical counting device. The final count was 93,466 persons passing when the city’s population was about 734,000.

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So, in 100 years, what went wrong? The places that so many persons patronized for decades are boarded up. And what is to become of them? The recent news is that a new development team will address these sadly vacant properties and work out a way for them to become productive again.

This once-beloved commercial neighborhood’s fall into a trashy backwater is a depressing story. And yet, the empty block has architectural merit. The old Julius Gutman Co. store at Lexington and Park, along with Read’s drug store at Howard and Lexington, were the work of architects Smith & May, who also gave the city its marquee 1920s skyscraper, 10 Light Street, the Art Deco tower recently converted into apartments.

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Julius Gutman went through several remakes. A budget store, it merged with Brager’s and later became an Epstein’s. It was a classic department store, with grinding escalators and elevators with ringing bells. Unlike some department stores, Gutman’s welcomed both Black and white customers who got on with the business of shopping.

After students from Morgan State University brought about the integration of the Read’s soda fountain seats in the mid-1950s, this store, one of the busiest retail enterprises in the state, was also a Baltimore legend. You hadn’t shopped downtown unless you ran into Read’s for a bottle of aspirin or a fast grilled-cheese sandwich. It was also a major dispenser of Hendler’s ice cream.

There was nothing fancy about this block’s variety stores, the “five and dimes” that functioned as today’s dollar stores do. In their day, the W.T. Grant, Woolworth, Kresge and McCrory operations rarely had an off day. Several of them, like W.T. Grant, had an escalator, as well as a large housewares department on its second floor. They also had shoe repair departments and counters to sell you live turtles, goldfish or parakeets.

As racially segregated as Baltimore was in the 1950s, the races mixed on this street, although not all the variety stores would open their restrooms to Black shoppers.

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The proponents of the Superblock redevelopment argue that restoring the area would create a bridge between the Central Business District, Mount Vernon and the city’s west side. That bridge, and the streetcars that ran along the street, was pulled apart by a much-vaunted urban renewal plan called the Charles Center.

Unveiled in the later 1950s, the Charles Center creators cavalierly torn down the important block of West Lexington Street that connected it to the major downtown artery, Charles Street. The law of unintended consequences took over, and what was left of Lexington Street fell on hard times.

Downtown Baltimore is constantly reinventing itself. What often is left behind is a piece of history, and in the case of the Superblock, at least many, but not all of the buildings, have been spared and await an adaptive reuse.

Reinvention is not limited to the Superblock. The planned move of the T. Rowe Price investment firm from Pratt and Light to Harbor Point (really the edge of Fells Point) shows how much the city is always repositioning itself.

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