Can a house have a spirit? Can concrete, brown shingles, bad wall paneling, and green, knee-deep carpet all possess a soul?
In Fells Point, a storefront is wedged in between the Painters Union and the Electrology Center. In a strip of stores that include the Love Zone, Karmic Connection and body hair removal, this storefront at 520 S. Broadway is a curious exception. For now, it's a war memorial. But it has been so much more.
"Can we help you?" answers a barefoot, tanned woman with red toenail polish lighting up the green carpet. Dana Flannery, by marriage.
She is a Kowzan. Turns out the Kowzans have been in this building since 1919, but actually the Polish family has been in Fells Point ever since the 1800s. Ms. Flannery grew up with this little front room, knows its history, remembers many of the
names and businesses that tried to make good here.
"Anybody who needed space came here," says the family matriarch, Josephine Kowzan. She's come down the stairs from the house proper into the front room. She's 80-ish, but won't say exactly what ish.
The little storefront has been safe havens to a slew of tenants and kin who were in the legal, immigration, travel and dental businesses, to name a few.
"You could become a citizen and have your teeth done, too," Ms. Flannery says.
She and her mom, Mrs. Kowzan, are sitting a spell in the dark office, which looks better in the lesser light. A Kowzan & Kowzan Real Estate clock is on the wall. Folding chairs, a black file cabinet, and a mannequin of a Polish officer decorate the skinny room, showcasing its latest tenant: the National Katyn Memorial Committee.
A poster in the storefront window says Soviet Russians captured 15,000 Polish army officers in 1940. In an effort "to remove the brain from the body of Poland," the Polish soldiers were shot to death in the Katyn Forest. The soldiers' hands had been tied behind their backs and their mouths stuffed with sawdust. The ** massacre was one of World War II's ugly secrets.
The 5-year-old Katyn Memorial Committee has been raising money to erect a monument in Baltimore. For four years, the three-story rowhouse has been home to the fund-raising project.
"We used to meet around the corner," says committee president Alfred B. Wisniewski. Mrs. Kowzan, a supporter of Polish causes, donated $1,000 to the Katyn Memorial. "We asked her if we could meet here," Mr. Wisniewski says. "We certainly appreciate it. We get good display." She doesn't charge rent, either.
Her daughter recalls the others who came before -- as mail is spit into the room from the door slot on this murky Thursday. At 520 S. Broadway, Ms. Flannery has seen priests, politicians and dignitaries shuttle through over the decades. Small successes were had. Most memorable is her Aunt Charlotte's gift shop, in business until 1960.
"I often sense the scent of my aunt in here," says Ms. Flannery, who even ran a country gift shop a few years back. It bombed, but she can add her name to the roster of ventures and services offered here.
If nothing else, the little room is a morgue for desks.
"There's Dad's old desk, Uncle Ed's old desk over there, and that's Alfred's desk," says Mrs. Kowzan.
For identification purposes: Dad was her late husband, Paul Kowzan. Mr. Kowzan ran an immigration office here for years -- did a lot of work with Chinese immigrants, his daughter Dana remembers. At the same time in the 1970s, Paul Kowzan had a travel agency. Immigration and travel -- Mr. Kowzan handled folks coming and going. He was a court interpreter and tax assessor for the City of Baltimore.
A couple of Mr. Kowzan's hats still hang in the office; he died in 1987.
Uncle Ed is the late Edward Kowzan, Paul's brother. The Republican from Fells Point ran for Congress out of this room decades ago. He lost. And Alfred is Mr. Wisniewski, the latest in an eclectic line of desk keepers.
The room was jumpin' in the 1950s and 1960s. You could buy cigars and Polish newspapers from the little front room. A great Greek grocery was next door. Besides Mr. Kowzan's immigration office, lawyers and doctors took turns working the room. Ms. Flannery and her mom recall a Mr. Ives from the bank who came on his lunch hour to do people's taxes. "He used one of those desks over there," Mrs. Kowzan says.
"Oh, and people sold insurance here, too," says Ms. Flannery, 44, whose niece has thrown Mardi Gras parties here. Two years ago, Ms. Flannery walked through this room in her wedding gown, through the front door, to the limo and on to the church.
"The life of this family is here -- that's the soul," she says.
This was the address of another gift shop, this one selling religious artifacts, candles, and such. "A very curious little shop," Mrs. Kowzan remembers. There was talk that spirits in the building would move candles from place to place. Mr. Wisniewski has heard the stories.
"I haven't experienced anything . . . lately," he says, chuckling.
As a matter of fact, the house is haunted by friendly spirits, Dana and her mother say. And they don't quickly add, "Only kidding," or break out in laughter. Reportedly, no one is ever here alone.
"It doesn't bother me," Mrs. Kowzan says. "I enjoy it when my husband comes to visit me in the middle of the night."
Her son, Paul, visits mostly during the day. He owns the building, which Mrs. Kowzan had inherited. Paul has kept the building fixed up -- took off the Formstone, painted the place. He has a son named Paul Jr., and everyone wants to keep the home in the family.
That's the story from 520 S. Broadway, where members of the Katyn Memorial Committee hold their earnest meetings in the company of desks, the towering mannequin and the Kowzan & && Kowzan Real Estate clock. The committee has a lot more money to raise to build their monument. But there is time -- and space, thanks to the Kowzans.
What could be next for the little front room? Another cause? Another shot at a shop?
"There have been ideas for ice cream," Dana Flannery says. "But that's another story."