Part of city's retail past falls to demolition guys

Baltimore Sun

Demolition has begun at the corner of Park Avenue and Lexington Street, once one of the busiest places in Baltimore to buy a pair of shoes or a dress. Or see a movie. Lexington Street, which functioned like a long and delightfully chaotic shopping mall, has long fascinated me. Nothing in the suburbs could match it.

I spent many a Saturday in the shops the wreckers are starting to level. Much of the block was occupied by the W.T. Grant variety store, a five-and-dime that had three full floors for retail. It was the go-to destination for inexpensive curtains, shoelaces and a zillion other things. I was fascinated by the dime-store culture of Lexington Street. All the major chains - Woolworth, Kresge, Murphy, McCrory, Schulte and Green - slugged it out in retail competition here. In many ways, the stores were alike, but we shoppers learned to discriminate.

The busy variety stores of Lexington Street provided some of the best people-watching too. I can recall the lady who stalked the aisles of Grant's with a live rooster in a shopping bag. Identical twin brothers, who lived in the old Alcazar on Cathedral Street, were regulars on the street.

The first time I traveled to Europe, I knew I'd carry home extra stuff, so I bought a collapsing suitcase at the old Tuerke's leather-goods shop, the first building to take a hit from the demo guys. The whole back of this store seemed to be filled with Lady Baltimore luggage, a brand that was actually made in the city, not far from Lexington Street. The folding suitcase worked well until I ruined it with a bottle of Grand Marnier bought in an airport duty-free shop. I unwisely checked it through, and I had to toss it in a garbage can at the airport.

My family never called the block's tallest building at 200 W. Lexington St. anything but Putt's. This is actually ancient history. The firm of J.W. Putts was once (circa 1910) a leading Baltimore retailer, famous for its china department. Years later, Castleberg's jewelers occupied this big corner building. I also recall it later as Lexington Lady, home to vinyl records. Whatever its name, it was just Putt's to us.

By far, the biggest deal here was the New Theater, which lasted longer than many downtown film houses and closed in 1986.

The New opened in 1910 with a top-society crowd - the Douglas Gordons, Dr. Hugh H. Young, the Bruce Cottens, the Misses DeFords and the J.F Symingtons - in the orchestra section. A few years later, D.W. Griffith's classic film, "Way Down East," played the New. It starred Lillian Gish.

The New went on to become home to 20th-Century Fox films. Shirley Temple ruled here in the 1930s. The New was theater owner Morris Mechanic's success story. He bought the New in 1929 and increased its seating capacity by rebuilding its balcony. Contractor Victor Frenkil was forced to work at night so there would be no interruption in business. He cut a hole through the theater's large Park Avenue brick wall and fed steel beams through to create a mezzanine.

When Morris married Clarisse in 1949, he threw a party at the Belvedere Hotel, which he owned. The event also coincided with the release of "Mr. Belvedere Goes to College," a Fox film starring Dan Dailey. The film had a national premiere at the New. The star appeared, and a fan tried to yank off his black bow tie. Fox executives flew in for the day.

The place was never empty, perhaps to embarrassment. On Jan. 12, 1957, city police estimated that 10,000 youngsters descended on the New after its management distributed 90-cent passes to "The Ten Commandments," which was released just weeks before. The passes went primarily to parochial school students. They were given earlier in the week, and the next Saturday, Lexington Street practically disappeared as students from Essex to Westminster swarmed to see Charlton Heston.

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