Cover-ups are the specialty of family business


Bryan Loane doesn't need a thermometer to tell the temperature.

His customers inform him when it gets hot.

Let the Baltimore mercury bounce above the 80-degree mark and people want awnings. These shamelessly old-fashioned canvas shades are custom tailored and then strung on ropes and poles around porches, windows and doors.

Mr. Loane, 31, takes the heat and the persistence of his patrons in stride. Six generations of his family have been keeping Baltimoreans contentedly in the dark. The Loanes have been making tents, awnings, canvas products and flags since 1815.

With his brother Scott, he conducts his family owned and operated business of 27 employees. Some sew and stitch fabric. Others climb ladders and install. The headquarters is the 1600 block of Union Avenue, a site just across the street from the old mill buildings where cotton canvas was once loomed. Baltimore was once the largest canvas sail cloth maker in the world.

"Baltimore made the sailcloth for the clipper ships. That's how we got our start. We once made sails, tops for covered wagons and bags for coal," he said the other day as a nearby phone seldom stopped ringing.

The phone was frenetic because this is Loane Brothers busiest time of the year. Dozens of residents want their canvas awnings hung. Weddings, graduations and parties are big in the late spring. Come the weekend of June 11-12, nearly every tent, pole and rope Loane Brothers possesses will be hauled out, strung up and protecting party attendees.

"A tent should be graceful. It should be inviting. It should go along with the spirit of having a wedding reception at home, so the guests can enjoy the grounds and garden. It just makes for a nicer event," Mr. Loane said.

This Baltimore institution has slowly grown and changed with the times. Flags and patriotic bunting were big sellers in the 19th century. The firm decorated City Hall in garlands of red, white and blue for 1876. Earlier Loanes made the city's first window awning.

"My great-great-great grandfather did it from a drawing he saw in a French newspaper," his great-great-great grandson recalled.

The Loanes also made the huge tents and awnings that shaded the open-air grandstands for the 1927 B&O; Railroad's Fair of the Iron Horse staged in Halethorpe.

"We have records that in 1860 we installed a tent for a wedding. It cost $200, . . . a tremendous price. Tent rental has always been a part of our business. In the old days, it would be a tent for a horse show one week, a wedding the next."

Canvas fashions change.

Some 50 or sixty years ago, awnings were khaki colored with green, dark red or brown stripes.

They were often erected from the door of a church to the sidewalk curb so a bride would never have to come in contact with foul weather on her nuptial day.

"We have a book that tells the outside distances from the church doors to just about every street in Baltimore. We call them pavement canopies. We still do one every couple years," Mr. Loane said.

His father, E. Morgan Loane Jr., (his friends call him Puttie) got the idea of renting a more elegant type tent while he was a student at the University of Virginia.

At that time, the toniest tents were available only from New York and Philadelphia sources. He broached the idea to his father who initially shot down the idea: "Baltimore is not the Main Line."

The younger Loane's idea for a white tent won out -- and caught on.

Outdoor parties under a big white tent have become something of social hallmark in Ruxton, the Greenspring Valley and Pikesville.

Gibson Island and parts of the Eastern Shore also are partial to the canvas social big top.

"But we've had calls for them in Rosedale and Glen Burnie. And a lot in the Inner Harbor. We've put tents for 600 people on the Hyatt Regency's roof."

To this day, however, many old-time Baltimoreans prefer a green awning.

"I love going out on house calls and meeting people. I get into wonderful little neighborhoods like some just off West North Avenue. People like their porches. And I feel that a nice awning seems to make a house a home," Mr. Loane said.

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