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Earlier years' buried treasure lurks in the cellar; Relics: Brave the cold, and you never know what you might find.


I RECENTLY found myself in the dankest of all Baltimore locations -- a cellar in an old brick house on a cold and damp February night. The Patapsco River was scarcely six blocks away. As a friend of mine likes to say, it was so cold you could hang meat there.

Packed and jammed Baltimore cellars hold a special fascination. We tend to live in one place for decades. Our basements and cellars show the effects of this permanence.

It was true at my homestead. About the time Bess and Harry Truman were packing up to leave the White House, my Uncle Jacques decided that the Guilford Avenue family residence needed what Baltimoreans were then calling a "club cellar." He did all the work. His knotty pine carpentry still holds up well to this day.

I spent many hours in that chamber, especially during the January-February foul weather times, and the others around it, a long series of rooms, cubby holes, furnace and laundry spaces that stretched from the back garden to a spot under the front porch. The actual club cellar was just one part of this progression. It had a rubber tile floor, an acoustical tile ceiling, hidden lighting, a big toy box and lots of off-limits cabinets. My father had a small office there too, served by a heavy black telephone.

The place was called a club cellar for a few years. Then my ever-practical grandmother just started to refer to it as the playroom, which was a more accurate definition.

Lily Rose ruled that house with a set of definite ideas. One precept held that no dogs nor television sets were allowed out of the cellar.Our dogs never objected. They liked the cool in the summer and the warmth in the winter. The place where the wooden steps made a sharp turn was an ideal place for napping. Should they get thirsty, the toilet in the cellar was a great dog watering bowl, much to be preferred over those we bought.

The cellar television was a 1955 Sylvania. It sat atop the Stieff upright piano, a big thing that Lily Rose also succeeded in getting removed from her precious first floor. This grand instrument had rarely been played. We did, however, honor the spot where it had once sat. This was a small hall off the dining room and front parlor. This space became the music room, a comic name we had for a location where the only note sounded came from a startlingly loud electric doorbell pitched so that even the more deaf members of the household would know when a caller arrived.

To this day the Guilford Avenue cellar holds mysteries. I despair of ever having to organize or inventory its contents. About the time my uncle finished off part of the cellar for his nieces and nephews, he also constructed other enclosures and chambers.

He built himself a photography darkroom and several storage lockers. There were rug boxes too, secured with funny little pieces of hardware. Every one was always filled to capacity with unique inventories.

The most-impacted stuff in the cellar dates from the Woodrow Wilson era, when my family moved from Broadway and North to Guilford Avenue. My people were not big supporters of that president. My great-grandfather, William Stewart, attended the Republican Convention of 1912 and came home with a large plaster bull elephant. He placed it atop the dining room china closet, where it still rests. His traveling suitcase is lost somewhere in the cellar's vast hold.

When I was growing up, and came home from friends' homes with inflated reports of what they owned, I was told to cease being envious. As I was often informed, "There's one just like it in the cellar anyway."

At the time, I ignored this advice because I was too lazy to sift through those cupboards and trunks. But over this past holiday season I escaped from my relatives for a few moments and ventured into the old cellar. I opened a cupboard and spotted a bottle of Abbott's Bitters, the Baltimore brand so popular in the 1920s and '30s. I thought to myself, "I'd have paid good money for that bottle if it had been for sale at a flea market."

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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