Venerable Mount Washington Tavern has long history as village hub

It's been a tough year for several popular area restaurants and bars, and their clientele who think of these watering holes and eating establishments as extensions of their homes.

Last December, in a spectacular five-alarm afternoon fire, Donna's in Mount Vernon went up in smoke; a month later, the landmark Charles Village Pub in Towson burned.

And last week, the Mt. Washington Tavern became the latest establishment to be destroyed by fire, which caused an estimated $2.5 million in damage.

Tavern co-owners Rob Frisch and Dave Lichty have had better weeks during their 25 years of working together.

"On Thursday evening, the staff and a few friends got together at Souris Saloon in Towson, and we had a couple of cocktails. We had lots of laughs, and cried, too," said Lichty, who said it's been an emotional roller coaster of a week for him and his partner.

Right now, the two men are trying to find jobs for their staff of 40 full-time workers and 20 part-timers until they are able to rebuild and go back into business.

"We told them it'll probably take a year to rebuild and then we're going to come and get them," said Lichty, with a laugh. "The tavern was only a building. It's the people who made it what it is."

Lichty began working as a busboy in 1986 at the Mt. Washington Tavern when it was owned by Theodore W. Bauer and William H. Shriver 3rd, who purchased the business in 1979.

"Rob was a bartender, and I was his bar back," said Lichty of the friendship that developed into a business relationship as well.

The two men purchased the business four years ago.

The tavern's famous gold-leaf sign, which was not damaged in the fire, has been removed for safekeeping, said Lichty, who has begun the sad task of sorting through the wreckage, salvaging what he can.

"The round, oval window was OK and has been boarded in. The Beer Hall of Fame drinking board, which my dad built, has been removed and is now in his barn," he said.

"I found a few decoys from the Chesapeake Room upstairs, and the Employee of the Year Award board," he said. "I feel like I'm pulling things out of the Titanic. Once we get up and running again, we'll display them."

Lichty and Frisch have been holding parking lot conferences with a steady stream of faithful customers who have dropped by to offer condolences or swap memories, and the phone hasn't stopped ringing with fresh offers of support and help.

The village that was once known as Washingtonville, now Mount Washington, taking its name from a nearby public house, has survived periodic raging Jones Falls floods, the coming of the Jones Falls Expressway and other changes.

In the late 1950s, the coming of the new expressway destroyed the mill town just off Falls Road and Kelly Avenue, which dated to 1796 and stood in the new road's way.

Some 40 buildings, which once stood across from the Pennsylvania Railroad's Mount Washington station, were pulled down.

The product that put Mount Washington on the map was cotton, which was produced in the Washington Cotton Manufacturing Co.'s mill, erected in 1810. It was powered by the flowing waters of the Jones Falls.

In addition to the cotton mill, the village boasted a copper mine, another mill and two snuff factories.

In 1830, rails of the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, later the Northern Central Railway, which eventually fell under the dominion of the mighty PRR, pierced the village, and later a streetcar line, giving residents and travelers an alternative to the rutted and bumpy Falls Road Turnpike.

In 1854, developer George Gelbach began building country homes, and Mount Washington took off as a destination.

From the Civil War period until 1918, the mills were owned by William E. Hooper. They were later sold and became the Maryland Bolt and Nut Co.

The village developed a small but flourishing commercial center with a drugstore, A&P, the Mt. Washington Tavern and other amenities that helped meet local needs.

The Mt. Washington Tavern, founded originally as Sparwasser's, opened its door and served its first beer about the time of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

It was originally located across from its present home on Newberry Street, where it moved in 1941 into a two-story clapboard and slate-clad building with a whimsical cupola.

For years, the place, which was also called Spar's, was owned and operated by Ed Sparwasser, a not-so-amiable and somewhat grouchy publican who lived upstairs on the second floor.

This was strictly a beer-and-shot joint, not a place where one ordered a Negroni or a carefully chilled martini or Manhattan. Such chemistry was beyond the reach of the bartender.

"It was wonderfully seedy, and the Baltimore newcomer of us went there every day for lunch and loved it, the good French fries and dreadful coffee," observed a Baltimore Sun reporter in 1980, while "'The Gong Show' blurted from a TV set, the air was filled with the sound of clicking pool balls, and great clouds of bluish cigar and cigarette smoke … perpetually filled the place."

The jukebox selection never seemed to change, and Jimmy Reeves — singing "Four Walls" and "He'll Have to Go" — never seemed to overstay his welcome.

It wasn't uncommon to see plenty of North Baltimore husbands killing time on Saturday mornings after escaping domestic drudgery or yardwork, by telling their wives they had to go to the old Mount Washington Lumber Co., which used to be across from the tavern, to buy some wood.

My late colleague, Charley Flowers, who often attended those Saturday morning rump sessions with his hand carefully caressing a cold beer while the other held a fine Maduro cigar, wrote in The Baltimore Sun that PRR commuters, riding the Ruxton Rocket, would park their cars in the station lot in the morning, and then have "a drink in the evening there before going home."

By 1976, Sparwasser was bested by his troubles. He fell into debt, his wife left him, and he was hospitalized for several months.

Finally, he threw in his bar mop and sold the business to Messers Shriver and Bauer, who transformed it into the preppy outpost it has remained for more than 30 years.

The Mt. Washington Tavern even gained a modicum of fame when it earned a mention in Lisa Birnbach's 1980 bestseller, "The Official Preppy Handbook."

"I'm not sure what I'll be doing over the next year but we're going to do it right," said Lichty. "We're coming back with a vengeance."