Baltimore glimpses: Converting a cornfield

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALEX BROWN has been sold, meaning the Brown business. What was known as the "Brown Estate" -- 48 rolling acres and the famous "pink house" at its center, high on a hill where Reisterstown Road meets Gwynns Falls Parkway -- was sold some 40 years ago. It was called "Mondawmin."

The Brown family homestead was at the time the largest piece of undeveloped land in the city. So in the first week of October, 1956, when the word was out that the estate was to be sold for a new kind of shopping center, the city was electric with excitement.

Successive generations of merchant-banker-tycoon Browns, so the legend went, had stood on the high ground of Mondawmin with a view clear to the harbor where the ships came and went. The Brown family bought the property in 1850, when George Stewart was the Brown (Alex had died in 1834); George died in residence at Mondawmin in 1896 and was succeeded by Alex, who died in 1949, also at Mondawmin. The property was sold in 1950.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a guest of the Browns when the estate was the center of Baltimore wealth and society. It was his suggestion that Mr. Brown name the estate "Mondamin" -- an Indian word for "cornfield." A draftsman's mistake made it "Mondawmin" -- that name stuck.

By 1956 it was a cornfield no longer. Where once the Browns were masters of all they surveyed, a city-within-the-city was going up -- stores and concourses and fountains and offices and parking lots. It was among the first modern shopping centers to open in Baltimore (Edmondson Village was first in 1947).

On the morning of the grand opening, Sears, Franklin Simon, A.S. Beck, Food Fair and Bond Clothes stood ready to welcome a purported Indian chief conveniently named "Mondawmin." He was supposed to arrive by helicopter, but it was pouring down rain, so he arrived, somewhat damp, by car. From beneath an umbrella he read his dedicatory speech -- from

Longfellow's "Hiawatha: "

I the friend of man Mondawmin, come to warn you and instruct you

How by struggle and by labor, you shall gain what you have prayed for.

And the era of giant mall shopping centers had begun.

Making its way down Howard Street on ballgame days and nights at Camden Yards, the light rail is crowded to capacity. Whole families have come in from the counties, many of them seeing Howard Street for the first time in many years -- or ever. The old strive to recapture for the young the once famous street in all its bygone glory, circa 1960.

On a parking lot south of Centre Street stood for several golden decades after 1927 one of the great movie houses in America, the Stanley Theater. Raymond Headley wrote in "Exit," his excellent compilation of old Baltimore movie houses: "No theater grander will ever be built."

The lobby was like something out of a Hapsburg palace, faced in imported Italian terrazzo marble inlaid with brass. On either side of the lobby, marble stairways led to the mezzanine and lower balcony. The luxuriously appointed mezzanine lounge extended the width of the theater, and was richly furnished with divans, easy chairs, floor lamps and ambience "suggested by indifference to cost, and a highly developed sense of refinement." The main auditorium was executed in a medieval Romanesque style in buff, gray and pale blue, set off with gold and terra-cotta with rich maroon tapestries and wall hangings. The main lighting fixture was a huge Tiffany cut-crystal chandelier.

All this -- in a movie house in downtown Baltimore.

In 1958 the name was changed to Stanton. The last movie there was "Oliver," on April 17, 1965.

South of the Stanley/Stanton, and still standing, is the Mayfair, which opened in 1941 and closed in the early 1980s.

On your left now was Grand Rapids Furniture, and next to it, probably the most famous music store Baltimore ever knew, Fred Walker's. There, or at Conn's or Hammond's was where, in the 1950s, you bought your big 78-rpm records (there were no tapes or CDs) and sheet music. Youngsters would take a couple of records into soundproof cubicles equipped with phonographs, sit back and enjoy the music with dancing feet, snapping fingers, clapping hands, singing along. Nobody bothered them in their very own worlds.

In the 300 block of Howard Street, to the right, were Wyman Shoes, Hess Shoes, Schleisner's -- and the Oriole Cafeteria, where you dined on starched white linen with gleaming silverware. The selection included at least five appetizers, eight to 10 entrees, no fewer than a dozen vegetables (fresh, not frozen or canned), as many different salads and half a dozen desserts, including cakes and pies baked on the premises.

Music to dine by

L From the balcony, an orchestra played soft music to dine by.

And this civilized dining experience was available in one Baltimore's least expensive restaurants. There were at one time five Oriole Cafeterias in Baltimore. With their excellent food and sophisticated ambience, they were among the city's most popular. The last Oriole closed in 1975. John Dunnock, the owner, explained that "people seemed happy with just burgers and colas and French fries."

Howard Street's 200 block housed the jeweler Oscar Caplan, Stieff Silver, Mano Swartz furs, the Awrach and Perl delicatessen (favorite of the Saturday morning downtown teen-age gang) and Jacobi jeweler.

Crowding the four corners at Howard and Lexington was the epicenter of Baltimore retailing in those days. On your left, Stewart's; across Lexington on the same side, Read's Drug store; on your right, Hutzler's and Hochschild's; across Lexington, the May Co. (later, the Hecht Co.)

Down toward Fayette was -- and still is, thank you -- the Howard Street Jeweler's. At the northwest corner of Fayette was Thompson's restaurant, which was open through the night. You could come in for breakfast at 5: 00 in the morning.

The light-rail trip, from as far out in the county as you want to board it and into Camden Yards, is $1.35. Cheap at the price, for all those memories of growing up in Baltimore.

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/22/97

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