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Affordable Light Street apartments, but no liquor in the basement

The former Lanahan liquor warehouse at 22 Light St. is being redeveloped into affordable housing.
The former Lanahan liquor warehouse at 22 Light St. is being redeveloped into affordable housing. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Workers from Southway Builders were puzzled initially by the presence of a rectangular well in the basement of 22 Light St., a commercial structure being converted into 40 units of affordable housing in downtown Baltimore.

This swimming pool-like depression in the cellar was part of the operation of the old William Lanahan & Son Hunter-brand rye whiskey empire. The structure constructed immediately after the Baltimore Fire of 1904 housed the city’s best-promoted fine liquor operation, where crates of bottled spirits were blended, then shipped by rail and water to thirsty imbibers.

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James Riggs, a vice president of Osprey Property Co., said his firm acquired 22 Light last month for $4.25 million and is a partner with the Women’s Housing Coalition.

Work is underway to create a new lightwell in the former liquor warehouse destined to be made into 36 units of affordable housing and four units of market-rate housing. Riggs expects the building to be ready for occupancy in February 2021. Its classic facade will be cleaned, but no exterior changes will be made.

“The building we bought was only offering class-B temporary commercial office space with month-to-month leases,” he said. “The building was definitely tired and in need of improvements. When completed, the project will be certified as green under National Green Building Standards. The total investment is $21.5 million. The goal is provide affording housing to downtown Baltimore in what is now a largely high-end market. This is a place for people who have service-level jobs and likely work downtown."

He said the structure stands in a grid of mass transit options. Its basement, where the rye was blended in the pool-like well, will house bike storage racks.

When new, 22 Light was one of the first structures to rise after downtown Baltimore was consumed by flames on Feb. 7-8, 1904. Articles described it as a “heavy warehouse” designed by architects Otto Simonson and Theodore W. Pietsch. Conceived to withstand another calamity, it remains a bastion of steel columns, girders, beams, concrete floors and brick arches trimmed in Maryland granite.

A banner, proclaiming Hunter Rye, flew from a flagstaff atop the roof. The rye whiskey’s label carried an image of a gentleman rider on a horse hunting the elusive fox. Its motto was “First over the Bar,” a play on words about a place of liquid refreshment and the bar, or crossbar, that a fox hunter jumps.

Prohibition arrived nationwide in 1920 and effectively ended the glory days of Hunter Rye. 22 Light became the Association of Commerce Building and later headquarters of the United Way.

The current owner would like to see a restaurant open at 22 Light, just as there was about a century ago, when the flagship Oriole Cafeteria opened there. Over the years there would be more Oriole locations, but the corporate offices of the chain remained upstairs on Light Street for decades.

The Oriole offered a reasonably priced lunch to downtown office workers. When the Depression arrived, its chefs came up with a meal of fried scrapple and hominy for 13 cents. A dime bought country sausage and fried mush, a cornmeal dish.

Oriole locations opened and closed and leapfrogged over the city. There was a large operation on Howard Street above Saratoga and another on East North Avenue that later served as an early home to Center Stage.

The cafeteria chain lasted until 1975, when its York Road locations near Towson University closed. Its advertising and decor played up the state of Maryland and its culinary traditions. This translated into meals of bean soup, chicken and oyster pies, chicken a la king, cottage chicken, beef stew, lamb pie with biscuit, Russian dressing, bran muffins, corn bread and gingerbread.

Another popular food purveyor remains at 22 Light and will do so through the apartment conversion. It’s a 7-Eleven convenience store.

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