On a chilly autumn morning in 1995, Parkville photographer Huguette May's next-door neighbor asked if she wouldn't mind giving him a ride to his former Highlandtown neighborhood. It was a trip that launched May on a years-long voyage of discovery.
As the pair passed the intersection of Madison and Monument streets, she noticed the former Luby Chevrolet showroom, a shuttered art deco masterpiece from the 1940s.
May was so taken with the rather forlorn building, which harked back to the glory days of Dinah Shore and "See the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet," that she resolved to return and photograph it.
She did, and was inspired to begin exploring other Baltimore neighborhoods, looking for similar oddities and the spirit of everyday Baltimoreans as expressed in their dwellings or places of business.
For the next two years, May's perambulations took her to every corner of the city. With her Nikon camera she photographed rowhouses, corner grocery stores, movie theaters, marble steps, yards, outdoor signs, snowball stands, Formstone facades and fast-food emporiums. By the time she was finished, she had amassed 1,040 pictures.
The result? "Finding the Charm in Charm City: Affectionate Views Of Baltimore," a collaboration with Anthea Smith, an award-winning Hampden artist and writer. It was published last month by Johns Hopkins University Press ($29.95).
"These pages represent my version of visual 'Balmorese,' that celebrates the unique, the forgotten, the quirky, the hidden, the well-loved -- street side charms that are, or were, special to this city because they are either duplicated in no other place or we have adopted them as our own," May writes in the introduction of the book.
Says Smith: "This book is a love letter to Baltimore's grand and glorious and sometimes one-of-a-kind places."
May shot the pictures using a new photographic technique, the making of Polaroid transfer prints. The process transforms ordinary pictures into images that resemble old-time postcards with their vivid purples, reds, oranges, greens and cream colors, engendering a certain moodiness and nostalgia for a Baltimore that is fast fading.
"I wasn't really thinking about postcards specifically but the process does lend itself to certain subjects," says May, who has moved to the outskirts of Boston, where her husband is director of finance for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "I'd often go out late in the afternoon, around 3 p.m., when the light gets very nice, and when such buildings as the Senator Theatre or Bel-Loc Diner show up beautifully. The light increases their nostalgia."
May and Smith, who met 10 years ago in a painting class, decided to work together after May had submitted a book proposal to the Hopkins Press.
They decided to organize the book's 14 chapters around the main roads that course through the city. In chapters titled "The Old Baltimore-Annapolis Road," "Falls Road," "Belair Road" and so on, they whittled May's photos down to 90.
"We had a wall map with pins so we could try and strike a balance," said Smith.
Smith's job was to research and write the opening essay, a history of the roads pictured, and all captions. She lives in a Hampden rowhouse with her husband, Bert, author of "Greetings of Baltimore: Postcard Views of the City." Because she had spent her childhood moving around as the daughter of a career Air Force officer, Smith developed an interest in finding out all she could about where she was living at the time.
To do her research, she ransacked newspaper archives, spent endless hours in the Enoch Pratt Library's Maryland Department consulting clippings, histories of Baltimore and old city directories. In some cases, she even consulted phone books, hoping to find a name of someone who could tell her about a building, sign or long-gone business.
In researching the background of Elberth's Grocery on Foster Avenue in East Baltimore, for instance, Smith located the granddaughter of the founder, August Elberth, a
German-immigrant butcher who opened the business in the late 1800s.
The granddaughter recalled getting up at 4: 15 a.m. on Saturday mornings and working in the store bagging groceries. She also was able to illuminate the store's history and described it for Smith as a "nice little corner store in a neighborhood where people knew each other."
Smith's charming narrative includes such minutiae as the Belvedere Hotel being the first hotel in Baltimore to have all of its windows fly-screened when it was built in 1903; and the history of the Silent Oriole Club on East Preston Street, the oldest club in the nation for hearing-impaired people who are interested in sports.
Or the weird tale of the woman who spent 29 years until her death in 1949 making daily visits to her former home, the Gatehouse at Johns Hopkins University.
Today, the building houses the offices of the JHU newsletter. Originally named Homewood Villa, it had been built for her by her father as a wedding present. After his death in 1903, the daughter maintained the house as it was the day of his death.
"From 1920 until her death in 1949, at the age of ninety-two, she lived at the Stafford Hotel but each afternoon took a taxi to Homewood Villa, where she would reminisce about her childhood, returning to her apartment at midnight or later," writes Smith.
The book also has its humorous moments.
In a picture of the hubcap-studded facade of Hub Cap City on Belair Road in Overlea, Smith included the business' slogan: "Don't go around with your lug nuts showing."
Smith was surprised at some of what her research turned up.
"I was unaware that Baltimore was an important coffee-importing center in the 19th century, and I didn't know how big a role the city played in the development of Coca-Cola." (The company's first general meeting outside of Atlanta was held at the Southern Hotel in 1923; in 1935, the company's research department was located in the Candler Building.)
"I also learned that if you worked for a broom factory, such as the Atlantic-Southwestern Broom Co. in Canton, manufacturers of the Little Lady broom, workers received a draft deferments for working there during World War II."
The two collaborators haven't ruled out a second book.
"There is lots and lots of material, and people like reading local history," says Smith.
"A book like this helps keep essential parts of the city alive and helps solve the little mysteries. If more people know the history and mysteries of these buildings, perhaps less will be destroyed and more saved," she says.
Huguette May and Anthea Smith today will sign copies of "Finding the Charm in Charm City: Affectionate Views Of Baltimore" at:
1 p.m.: Home Town Girl, 1000 W. 36th St.
3 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, York and Joppa roads, Towson
Pub Date: 12/14/98