Magnificent marble fountain closes


The last Coke gurgled through the fountain dispenser Tuesday afternoon. No more milkshakes and malts, chocolate sodas and shrimp salad sandwiches.

The magnificent marble soda fountain at Medical Arts Pharmacy is retired at age 65. Its Vermont and Tennessee-quarried components are being disassembled and taken to the Baltimore Museum of Industry. A place where dozens of office workers, pensioners and school children once congregated will be enveloped into an expanded pharmacy, which continues to do business here.

"It's like an institution that's gone; it's incredible," Carol Miller, who works in the Medical Arts Building at Cathedral and Read streets, said yesterday.

"Its time had come," said pharmacist Mark Levi, who purchased the landmark drugstore in 1977. "Every six months, the percentage of the fountain's sales in relation to the rest of the store continued to drop."

Dr. Levi said he has passed on his milkshake recipe to the Charlesmead Pharmacy in the 6200 block of Bellona Avenue.

Dr. Levi already has hired a designer to modernize the store, which he said will shift in emphasis from a sell-everything drugstore to a pharmacy more strictly geared to medical needs. He donated the fountain to the Museum of Industry on Key Highway, where it will be displayed, but not operated, with other antique drugstore fixtures.

It's difficult to determine, but the Medical Arts counter may have been Baltimore's last and oldest continuously operating marble soda fountain in an active pharmacy. Marble is the key word here.

Museum officials were hard pressed to think of a more senior marble fountain in a local drugstore. Cavacos' drugstore in Hampden closed some years ago. Block's Pharmacy, at Baltimore Street and Linwood Avenue, still has a fountain, but it's not marble. Earl's Malt Shop, at 635 E. Fort Ave., is a fine working marble fountain, but the pharmacy portion closed in 1990.

Up through the 1950s, these counters once were plentiful an often packed with customers. But one by one, they were torn out and replaced by expanded drug and sundry departments.

To the end, the 1927 Medical Arts fountain was a shrine t chocolate sundaes and foamy milkshakes. It possessed all the essentials of a classic fountain, including a staff of four women who made the fountain treats to order.

Its Coke dispenser was a rather old model with a sign for Tab, the low-calorie precursor of Diet Coke. The fountain was a different-colored marble, a thick, dark green slab for a counter and a high white-veined base. These heavy stone panels concealed the plumbing and refrigeration works. There were large mirrors and milled wooden trim, stained dark brown. The seating booths, lighted by small art deco fixtures, disappeared a few years ago.

There were stainless steel pumps and bins for syrups and toppings. The individual nameplates listed chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, cherry, raspberry and pineapple.

Veteran customers blamed the fountain's demise on the competition from several small lunchrooms and carryouts that have opened in the Cathedral-Read area. Some recalled the fountain was "mobbed" at the lunch hour about a dozen years ago, but that traffic slowly fell off. Still, the Tuesday closing, and the dismissal of four employees, did not sit well with fountain regulars.

"At last, this has come to pass," said a man who walked in to bu a Wall Street Journal. "Nothing good lasts."

"It was sad to see this happen in today's economy," said Judy Coulianos, who has worked 14 years at the Jobst Service Center on the Medical Arts Building's fourth floor.

"They served wonderful breakfasts, fixed the way you wanted, and they always greet you with a smile," said Kellie Myles, who also works in the building.

For decades, the pharmacy was owned by Stephen Provenza, who lavishly filled its walls with his personal collection of antique Europeanceramic pharmacy jars. "We had a regular food department," said Dr. Provenza, now retired. "The doctors would come downstairs and have their lunches or dinners or we sent the food to their offices."

Many regulars associate the old drugstore with the childhood visits to the host of physicians and dentists who practiced upstairs.

Lee Miller, a physical therapist who now works in the building, recalled that when he was 11 -- he's now 38 -- he had an eye examination there, including dilation drops in his eyes. "I was told to go down to the pharmacy and wait until they took effect."

Mr. Miller had a keen personal regret yesterday about the demise of the fountain. "I missed getting a milkshake before it closed," he said.

Betty Spalding, another regular, walked in at closing time on the last day of operation.

"I handed the counter girls a ten-spot and told them to go out and have a good drink," she said.

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