Back Story: Buildings are gone but not forgotten

The Rennert Hotel in 1941. The famed hotel at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty streets first received guests at its opening in 1885.
The Rennert Hotel in 1941. The famed hotel at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty streets first received guests at its opening in 1885. (Library of Congress photo)

Gregory J. Alexander and Paul Kelsey Williams have combed through photo archives, and the result of their labors is "Lost Baltimore," which is a painful reminder of notable buildings that fell victim, for the most part, to fire or urban renewal.

They also expand the "lost" concept to include sports teams, businesses, entertainment venues and even the weekly chore of scrubbing marble steps that has largely vanished.


Alexander and Williams have included a cross-section of commercial structures as well as the once-grand estates of Guilford, Ulman, Bolton and the Wyman Villa, which were demolished to make way for new neighborhoods.

Now-gone amusement parks, department stores, factories and shipyards round out this photographic compendium.


Sepia and black-and-white photographs are used wisely. They sprawl across the pages and, in some cases, are so large, I couldn't help but feel as though I could step into them at times.

Such is the case with the image of the Rennert Hotel, the seven-story hostelry with its whimsical turrets, designed by architect E. Francis Baldwin.

Located at Saratoga and Liberty streets, the hotel first received guests at its opening in 1885. There are no automobiles in evidence while a driver waits in an open carriage across from its entrance.

Once one of the most noted hotels south of New York, the Rennert closed in 1939, to be replaced two years later by a parking garage.

In his comprehensive 1982 book, "Lost Baltimore Landmarks," Carleton Jones, the venerable Baltimore Sun reporter and Baltimore historian, wrote that while the 1904 Baltimore fire claimed 1,500 buildings in the city's downtown core, "redevelopment has probably claimed far more of interest."

The bulldozers began their work in the late 1930s and pushed on steadily into the 1950s and 1960s, clearing out areas of old Baltimore in the name of urban renewal. Highway construction also did its part.

"Before these changes, Baltimore had been essentially the husk of a big Victorian city with an Edwardian girdle draped across its middle, as a result of rapid rebuilding after the great fire of 1904," wrote Jones. "Not a single major new downtown structure was built between 1930 and 1950."

Another act of architectural barbarism was the 1986 demolition of the Tower Building in the 200 block of E. Baltimore St., with its signature four Seth Thomas tower clocks and its green copper-clad roof. It opened as the home of the Maryland Casualty Co. in 1912.

The authors have included an image that in addition to the tower, shows streets filled with 1920-era flivvers, clanging streetcars and signs advertising neighboring businesses such as the Gayety, the longtime burlesque house.

In the category of the "lost," they have also included the Baltimore Colts, Baltimore Bullets and even the Edgar Allan Poe "toaster," who last left his flowers and cognac in 2009.

But there are some problems even though overall this is a splendid work.

One picture purportedly of John Work Garrett, who was president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from 1858 to his death in 1884, cannot possibly be the noted railroad executive.


Garrett had a moon-shaped face with noticeable jowls. He sported a set of white lamp chop whiskers, which were very much in vogue during the 19th century. He had a balding pate and wore no mustache, as the gent in this image does.

Edgar Allan Poe is spelled Edgar "Allen" Poe in the book. I know this is a common error, but when there is an image of the poet's tombstone on the facing page clearly showing the correct spelling of his name, there really is no excuse.

Harbor Field and Colgate Creek had once been home to the great Pan American clippers that flew to Bermuda and the Azores. In 1958, the site was purchased by the Maryland Port Authority and redeveloped as today's Dundalk Marine Terminal.

The original enormous hangar that housed the giant clippers between flights and its Art Deco waiting room were not torn down in 1971, as the authors claim. I visited them with three other friends about five years ago. They have since been removed.

Despite central air conditioning in many homes, I don't think awnings are a vanishing species, and I still see plenty of them driving around during the summer months.

Ditto on a-rabs. Just the other day I saw one clip-clopping along a city street, and I'm always amazed when I see one several times a year rolling along the alleys of Rodgers Forge. How he gets there from the city remains a mystery to me.

But "Lost Baltimore," which will be published in July, is still a visual treat and historical journey to another, sadly lost, era.

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