The old market


Last week I misspelled the name of a popular old (and still very much in business) stall at Lexington Market. It should be Mary Mervis.

NOW that the city has the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the new light rail and the not-so-new subway, a few stadium patrons are rediscovering Lexington Market, which is a stop on both subway and trolley lines. The market is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the stadium (although the Charles Center stop on the subway is about the same distance).

Lexington Market, of course, was spiffed up a few years ago, but much of it still has the look of oldness, especially the big shed where most of the stalls are. But old-timers will remember the old Lexington Market, the one that burned in 1949.

To understand the difference between the new and the old you have to go back to the early morning of March 25, 1949. At 3:30 a.m., two workmen from the American Ice Co., William Bayne and Harold Green, were entering the market to load ice into a customer's stall. They spotted the flames and turned in the alarm at the fire box at Paca and Fayette.

The fire was a six-alarmer -- 24 engines, six truck companies, two high-pressure units, a water tower, 165 firefighters. The fire burned through the night. At daybreak most of the market was a smoldering ruin. It had been a Baltimore landmark between Eutaw and Paca, bordering Lexington, since the late 1700s.

For most of that time, the old market did not resemble today's market. It was not housed in a building; it was a collection of stalls grouped under an airy shed that took in most of the block from Eutaw Street to Paca and from Lexington almost to Saratoga.

The "walls" of the shed were actually the thin wooden backs of the stalls, and between them were the openings that made up the "entrances" to the market. (For many years, stalls extended outward from the walls, too.) In addition, open-air stalls spilled out of the main market on both sides of Lexington, meandering across Paca and over to Greene. The stalls appeared to sprout from one another, presenting a scene of seeming disarray. Indeed, Lexington Market looked like the open-air markets you can see in most of the Third World in 1992.

A few years after the fire, in April 1952, the new market opened -- all brick and glass, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, neat, clean and relatively well-ordered.

Naomi Mirvis Igorin, who worked in the family delicatessen ("Mary Mirvis") in both the old market and the new, remembered the old vividly. "The place just sprawled all over the streets and sidewalks. And working there, in the shed and outside of it, was cold! We used to wear sweaters upside down to keep us warm -- the sleeves as pants, the rest pulled up over our midriffs. But it didn't help a lot. The old market was cold in the winter."

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