Baltimore's old shopping district has proved a vexing problem. Its department stores and five-and-dimes began closing 40 years ago, when Hochschild Kohn permanently locked its doors at Howard and Lexington streets.
City officials have tried to usher in new development to what is a now, 40 years later, a stretch of vacant storefronts intermixed with a handful of office buildings and an old department store transformed into apartments.
The city owns considerable vacant property here. Its redevelopment arm, the Baltimore Development Corp., is now proposing to brand the roughly three-square-block area just west of downtown as two distinct city historic preservation districts. Previous redevelopment efforts called the batch of vacant properties the Superblock.
Under the proposal, the Lexington Street corridor would be known as the Five and Dime Historic District; the other, which was the home of the larger department stores, the Howard Street Historic District. If approved by the City Council, they would become the 34th and 35th of Baltimore's historic districts.
"The whole purpose behind creating a district is to preserve a heritage," said Kim Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "We want to keep these buildings so that the memories of this area will survive."
By turning the two areas into preservation districts, they city will restrict exterior changes to this collection of commercial architecture.
Of the two proposed areas, the proposed Five and Dime District holds a fond place in the city's collective memory. It was part of Baltimore's busiest shopping area, peaking in the 1950s.
It had eight variety stores — Woolworth's, H.L. Green, S.S. Kresge, Schulte United, W.T. Grant, J.G. McCrory, Silver's and G.C. Murphy. Some had lunch counters or hot dog bars.
The McCrory's building once housed a full restaurant called the Celestial, which featured an Asian menu.
Woolworth's arrived in Baltimore via a type of business second cousin. Fred M. Kirby worked in conjunction with the Woolworth brothers, Frank and Sumner. He opened his Kirby variety store in 1895 on Lexington Street and later sold out to Woolworth's while retaining his seat on the corporate board. Lexington Street's local Woolworth's outlasted the bigger department store competition and finally closed in 1994.
The nationally based five-and-dime chains brought their corporate architecture and 1920s shopfronts. Grant's was a rather modern-looking store, with escalators, while Silver's was something of a poor cousin. The Kresge operation featured a sleek Art Deco facade and clock.
Each of the stores sold pretty much what its competitors did — shoe laces, inexpensive jewelry, holiday wares, buttons, toys and household goods. There were sub-specialties: shoe repairs while you waited, pet departments — goldfish and parakeets were strong sellers — and seasonal outdoor racks of houseplants and petunias.
The area rocked on Saturday afternoons, when shoppers overflowed its sidewalks. Most were on buying missions, but others seemed to just like the company.
I recall a fall day when a woman with a shopping bag entered Woolworth's. She began talking into the bag, and I spotted the bobbing red comb atop her pet rooster, Henry. She chatted with Henry as she made her way around the aisles. I later learned that the manager never objected.
Perhaps better known in the 1960s and 1970s were the Conway twins. These identical brothers were never separated as they strolled along Lexington Street at a time when the street's commercial life was winding down. The twins were dressed alike in sport jackets. They lived in rooms in the residential hotel component of the Alcazar, now home of the Baltimore School for the Arts on Cathedral Street.
Shoppers — or those on their lunch break from the nearby Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. office building (now an apartment house) — greeted them as ambassadors for Baltimore's quirky downtown shopping area.