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Where's George? Here in our old house, but about a century away

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We've found the source for all those wooden parts missing from our 120-year old rowhouse -- the balusters in the staircase, the filigree decorations on the sides of each step, the elaborate newel posts, the double front doors. It's all there, and it may actually be where each of these parts came from originally.

There's just one problem. It isn't nearby. In fact, it's at least a hundred years away.

"George O. Stevens & Co., manufacturers and dealers in Doors, Sashes, Blinds, Slate Mantels," reads the ad in the 1860 edition of the Woods' directory of Baltimore city. "We warrant our work. We solicit your custom. No. 47 West Pratt-st., Baltimore, Md."

The ad lists 18 types of products "Our Stock Comprises:" Among them, doors, sashes, blinds, newel posts, balusters, handrails, window and door frames, centre flowers, panel ornaments, sash weights and cords "and a Great Variety of Builders' Materials."

By the time this full-page ad was published, George O. Stevens & Co. had been in business for five years. He apparently continued in the business, in one form or another, until at least 1896.

By the time we had this information, our mission had changed from tracking down old house parts to tracking the history of the house-part purveyor. Of course, our dream was to find a neglected basement full of original parts; or at least a successor company that had taken over the stock.

All we found, however, were words -- on old maps, in the old directories, on microfiche and microfilm in the main branch of the Enoch Pratt library. Instead of a doorway to a dusty storeroom, we found a win dow on a nearly forgotten past.

It was a picture in the 1981 book on Baltimore rowhouse design by Natalie W. Shivers, "Those Old Placid Rows," that first caught our attention. There, labeled "George O. Stevens' Illustrated Price List," is a very close example of our newel post, balusters and stair fretwork. It's so close the actual match must be on the next page.

Wow, we thought, wouldn't it be great if we could just call them up and order replacements?

Our first call was to Dean Krimmel, curator of local history at the City Life Museums. Mr. Krimmel said the name rang a bell; he tracked down two advertisements for the company, one from 1860, one from 1870. He also told us that the city's street-numbering system changed in 1887; 47 W. Pratt would have been on the south side of Pratt between Gay and Commerce Streets, part of what was then called Spears' Wharf. Today, it's the site of a sculpture on the lawn between the World Trade Center and the National Aquarium.

Mr. Kimmel noted that that location would have been among the 140 acres destroyed in the great fire of 1904. It gave the edge of hindsight to our research: George O. Stevens moved five times after 1860 -- Had he moved out of or into the path of the fire?

In fact, he did both. By 1870 the company was at 13 and 15 W. Front, at the northwest corner of Front and Fayette streets. It was barely out of the fire: It's catercorner to the Shot Tower, and now a park next to St. Vincent de Paul Church.

But in 1879, the company moved to 49 Light St. (now St. Paul), just north of Lombard Street. It was right in the path of the fire, and today is the site of office buildings. Then, in 1890, Stevens moved a little south, to 115 and 117 Light -- still in the fire zone, about where the parking garage is behind the IBM building.

Something happened to George Stevens just after that; the 1892 city directory notes the company is "in liquidation." But if he was down, he wasn't out; he's back in the directory the next year, listed as manager of The George O. Stevens Door & Window Co. The address is 1205-1211 S. Howard St., well out of the fire.

In 1894, the address changes again, to 213 and 215 W. Camden St. -- just barely out of the fire, though very close to where it began, at Redwood (then German) and Liberty. The site is now a parking lot behind Festival Hall.

In 1897, George O. Stevens is listed as a tenant at 313 Law Building, and at his home address, 2741 N. Charles. There's no mention of the company. There's just one more reference to George, at his home address, in 1898.

So our anxiety was probably uncalled for; George Stevens seems to have missed the fire. Maybe he didn't even live to see it; though we don't really know. There's no obituary on file at the Maryland Historical Society. We don't know if he owned the house at 2741, on the east side of N. Charles just south of 28th, but in 1900 the building was bought by one W. J. Gascoyne. Today the site is a parking lot.

The only building still standing that once housed George O. Stevens is the series from 1205 to 1211 S. Howard. All are now part of the H. Greenbaum Kitchen and Bath Associates Display Center; the building is shadowed by an overpass for the light rail, heading down to Oriole Park at Camden Yards a few blocks north. You can still see, in the brickwork, where the original doorways were. Inside, in what is essentially a warehouse, there is just one piece left that might show George's touch: an ornate, town house-style railing in an enclosed stairwell from the first to the second floor.

And even this site may not last. Herb Greenbaum says the building is under condemnation. "It's probably going to be in the way of parking lots for the football stadium" the city plans to build if it gets a team in the National Football League expansion. And alas, Mr. Greenbaum says when he moved into the building 11 years ago, it was empty.

Working on an old house can be a real pain, with long hours in dust and dim light, and backbreaking labor. One of the things that keeps us going is the history -- the idea of restoring to vibrant and useful life a little piece of the old city that had fallen into disrepair.

There's virtually no trace of the man George O. Stevens, or of the many business establishments he operated in the last half of the 19th century. But he hasn't vanished entirely. There are still pieces of George O. Stevens in the houses built during his time. We're lucky. We still have quite a few.

And by the way, if you ever find yourself taken by a time machine back to 1893, you can give old George a call. His phone number on Howard Street was 186-3. Give him our regards.

Next: Researching your old house's birth date.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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