Bright outlook in a shady business


Lorenz and Virginia Jefferson have spent a lifetime keeping their loyal customers in the dark.

The brother and sister are the proprietors of an old Baltimore awning company. It's their business to provide cool and comforting shade on the hottest of summer afternoons.

Their firm, L.E. Jefferson, was founded in Waverly in 1917 by their father, Leonidas E. Jefferson, who had been the manager of the old Stewart & Co. drapery workroom. A decorator by training, he knew every stitch of the slipcover, curtain and awning field.

"When my father first started, an awning was $8 and canvas was 28 cents a yard," says Miss Jefferson, a cheery woman who handles the intricacies of the office work.

Her brother, Lorenz, who admits being "past 80 years old," designs, sews and sells the awnings. He's still got the same twinkle in his eye he brought to the business 63 summers ago.

Since 1950, their workroom has been a remarkable building at the rear of 1600 Federal St., between Bond Street and Broadway in East Baltimore's Oliver community.

"My father paid $8,000 for this building, land and all," Mr. Jefferson says. "It was an old veterinary hospital. We had to rip out the horse stalls before we could set up shop."

The place looks like Omar the Tentmaker's secret lair. Bolts of fabric line the second-floor sewing room. One side holds a bank of extra-strong Singer sewing machines with needles tough enough to pierce sailcloth. Another section of the building is the storage loft, where 480 customers store their custom-made awnings every fall.

Come April or May, all the awnings leave the storage loft and are reassembled over steel rods at each customer's home. It's a time-consuming, exacting business, labor-intensive and out of another age. The Jeffersons wouldn't have it any other way.

"We cater to service," Miss Jefferson says, somewhat understating the considerable amount of service her firm continues to provide.

Indeed. How many businesses still make a product for you, then assemble it and disassemble it each year?

Typically, the Jefferson-made awning extends over a porch, patio or window. It is canvas or a synthetic fabric designed to screen out the summer sun. It should be taken down over the winter and stored in a cool, dry place. Many of the porch and window awnings can be raised via pulleys during storms or at night.

"It was an old Baltimore custom to pull up your awning at night," Mr. Jefferson says. "I don't know why this was done except that everyone did it at sundown. I can remember entire blocks of The Alameda or Calvert Street or Guilford Avenue where the houses faced west and every porch had an awning."

Today his sales growth area is Harford County. People find that ** outside decks are hot and need the shade a canvas awning provides. He's also busy in the Mays Chapel Village section of Cockeysville. For many years, he's made and hung awnings in Rodgers Forge and Loch Raven Village.

"Rodgers Forge has covenants," Mr. Jefferson says. "All the awnings have to be dark green or terra cottain color. Quite a few of the condominium associations have rules too. They don't rule out awnings. They just tell you what colors you can have."

Besides Lorenz and Virginia Jefferson, five other people -- a seamstress, a part-time secretary and three men who actually hang and take down the awnings -- fill out the work force. Much of the canvas, once made at the old Mount Vernon Mills in the Jones Falls Valley, now comes from the South. Solid colors are popular, but so are bold and wide stripes.

In an era when air conditioning seems to be universal, many of the Jeffersons' customers prefer this earlier form of cooling. But then again, many Jefferson patrons were around before central air.

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