Tea room regulars, philanthropists give cherished institution a needed boost; Woman's exchange meets goal of raising $150,000


The check arrived Monday, pushing the Woman's Industrial Exchange's campaign over the top of an emergency $150,000 fund-raising goal to preserve one of downtown Baltimore's most cherished -- and wallpapered -- anachronisms.

Over the past 19 months, the nonprofit foundation, established in 1880 "to furnish women with opportunities for financial security," passed its hat among its tea room lunch clientele, then tapped local philanthropic foundations (the Mercantile Fund's $3,500 donation took it past the goal) and banks. It reorganized and expanded its board of directors and it assessed the condition of its antique but beloved building at the corner of Charles and Pleasant streets.

"Baltimore has been very, very good to us," said Diane Coleman, who became the exchange's director in the spring of 1997 when it was down to a rapidly declining $25,000 bank account. "We are not through it all yet, but we stayed open."

For the first time, the exchange has a part-time paid publicity director. A local filmmaker is creating a feature on the place. An architect has been engaged to suggest how to repair its 180-year-old building and its cantankerous plumbing. It has a new $9,000 boiler, a new men's room toilet and a critical new section of underground piping replacing one that malfunctioned in 1997, causing rainwater to run uphill and flood the building's cavernous subbasement.

For all the behind-the-plaster change, the institution at 333 N. Charles St. looks as it did when women wore hats and gloves to buy the crocheted baby blankets, handmade dollhouse furniture and rag dolls consigned for sale by anonymous makers.

At lunchtime this week, waitress Layne Bosserman asked a table of diners whether they wanted dessert. The table exploded in a collective "Yes," and the customers ordered homemade lemon and butterscotch tarts.

"Everyone loves the Exchange's food," said Nina Flouton, a Silver Spring resident who arrives for chicken salad and shopping with her husband, Luther, several times a month. "The money they collected started with the little people, the regular customers, who gave $25. They showed the way and the big foundations followed."

Chartered formally in 1880 by a group of idealistic, wealthy women -- many of whom had been active in Quaker circles -- the exchange was formed to help financially hard-pressed women sell their wares and foods. As the local group became successful, it purchased its building, installed a sales room, rented rooms to boarders and opened a tea room.

One of the newest members of the exchange's board of managers is Kathy Sander, a University of Maryland, College Park historian, who has written a book on the 19th-century movement that established a national chain of these spots where women could earn money from their handwork.

"Of all the surviving exchanges, Baltimore's is the only one left in its original building," said Sander, whose 1997 book is entitled "The Woman's Exchange Movement."

"People love the exchange, but they too often take it for granted. After all, just keeping that old building together is an expense," she said.

The board of managers meets regularly in the Abell Room, a gracious chamber whose 1940s wallpaper is imprinted with birds and flowers -- but whose walls rattle when a bus rumbles by on Charles Street.

The Abell Room -- named to honor Elizabeth Laurenson Abell, who led the institution's last large successful fund-raising campaign (it was in 1917, and such local figures as department store head Thomas O'Neill and B & O Railroad President Daniel Willard were donors) -- was cleaned and improved with an antique table and lamps during the past year and a half. It will be available for public rental and meetings when renovations are done.

The 1997-1998 campaign included about 500 people who wrote checks from $9 to $150. Other contributions came from the France-Merrick Foundation, the Abell Foundation, BGE, the Carrollton Bank Corp., the First Maryland Foundation, the Kreiger Foundation, the Macht Foundation, the Mercantile Fund, Preservation Maryland, the Neighborhood Design Center, the LaVerna Hahn Trust, NationsBank, the Marino Foundation, the Kirby Charitable Trust and Network 2000.

"We've raised the money, but it's not over. There are still days when we have a light lunch crowd and the receipts don't cover the cost of the groceries," said Coleman.

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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