Women's exchange plans to rent apartments; Group will open 6 units in Charles Street building


One of the country's oldest women's charitable organizations is branching out into the rental business to help solve its financial troubles.

The Woman's Industrial Exchange, a tea room and gift shop in the 300 block of N. Charles St. whose proceeds benefit low-income people, plans to create six upscale apartments above its space to generate rental income. The organization is trying to raise $487,000 to help pay for the apartments, replace the roof, remodel the tea room and fix the building's kitchen.

"We hope to create enough monthly income from the rent to get rid of our monthly deficit" of $3,000 to $4,000, said Linda Goldberg, president of the board of the exchange. "But our overall mission is much broader than that. It is to help people help themselves."

The organization runs a shop in which people with limited income who work at home can sell their crafts and artwork. To lure customers through the shop, the exchange has a restaurant famous for its chicken salad, tomato aspic, deviled eggs, pies and rolls warm from the oven.

Formed by a group of socially conscious and mostly Quaker Baltimore women in 1882, the exchange was one of about 100 similar organizations around the country a century ago. Nine exchanges remain, and Baltimore's is the only one in its original building.

The original concept was to help Civil War widows and women who were barred from traditionally male occupations by allowing them to sell their sewing and embroidery to support themselves. The goods were sold anonymously to spare the women the stigma associated with poverty.

The exchange closed for a month in July 1997 because of a financial crisis. After a reorganization, the exchange reopened with new leadership and managers who had more professional business experience.

Over 15 months, the group hung banners outside the restaurant proclaiming "Damsel in Distress" and "Save the Exchange." The group raised $155,000, which covered short-term financial problems.

To improve the group's long-term financial health, it needs to bring in more money each month, said Goldberg. To do so, it plans to start construction by July on six apartments that will rent for $600 to $900 a month.

The exchange began a $1.15 million fund-raising campaign in December. It has raised about $663,000.

Karen Footner, a development consultant for the exchange, said the apartments also will help the city's goal of attracting more residents downtown. "The exchange has a very profound history, and it is now also contributing to the revitalization of downtown," said Footner. "In that sense, it is both historical and contemporary."

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