Legacy in politics of Baltimore put on the market


Adamp, gray chill hangs in the air, the Stonewall sign is broken and sagging and a For Sale sign flaps against the Formstone building at 1212 S. Charles St. as state Sen. George W. Della Jr. pushes the door open and steps into a political twilight zone.

The Stonewall Democratic Club - a last survivor from Baltimore's rich tradition of neighborhood political clubs - is holding an open house from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today for people interested in buying the clubhouse that has been its headquarters for more than 75 years.

The Stonewall clubhouse is a three-story brick building in which the buyer will find layers and layers of political history and tons of nostalgia. The club will take offers until Jan. 24. The building is at Charles Street and Ropewalk Lane in what might be called Greater Federal Hill. The trendy Ropewalk Tavern, ironically a popular spot for young Republicans, is just across the street. Nearby houses half the size of the Stonewall have brought $328,500 to $425,000 recently. Proceeds from the sale will go to the club.

"We're out to get as much as we possibly can," Della says.

Then, like an archaeologist probing an ancient tomb, Della lights a flashlight and a portable electric lamp to lead a preview tour. The clubhouse has been unused for about three years, and the electricity is turned off.

The club itself still lives, a shrinking remnant from its great days when it ruled supreme in South Baltimore from Federal Hill to Brooklyn and from Locust Point to Morrell Park and Pigtown. And even now, the Stonewall is not without a certain clout: Della has been president of the club as well as state senator, state Del. Brian K. McHale is president and City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger is a longtime member.

Della's father, George Sr., had also been president and state senator from 1938 to 1961, back in the day when the "b'hoys" were in charge, to use the term favored by Richard Q. "Moco" Yardley, The Sun political cartoonist of the day.

Della shines his flashlight on a photo portrait of the late state Sen. Harry J. "Soft Shoes" McGuirk, looking as distinguished as an actor advertising formalwear, with his trademark white pompadour and handsome pinky ring.

"Behave yourself," Della says, to his tourist. "Genuflect."

McGuirk, his predecessor as state senator and Stonewall president, ruled the Stonewall as a more or less benevolent despot for a generation. He was perhaps the last real old-style political boss in the city. His fellow state senator, Joseph A. Bertorelli, from the "Fightin' First" district across the harbor, dubbed him "Soft Shoes" because of his ability to slip unheard into State House photo ops.

Della unearths an artifact from the club's prehistory: the "programme" from the seventh Grand Hop of the Stonewall Social Club No. 1, which was presented at the Cross Street Institute on Monday evening Sept. 15, 1873. That suggests the club started in 1866, just after the end of the Civil War. The institute was a hall atop the Cross Street Market.

"That was among my Dad's personal effects at home, memorabilia of Stonewall," Della says. "If you look at some of the names on the committee, they're family names of people who still live down here, Welsh, an old-line family, Wagner, Langville, Mack."

The Stonewall name probably comes from Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the revered Confederate general, as evidenced in a 1940 dance program with an embossed image of a statue of Jackson on the cover.

Sentiment in Baltimore was strongly pro-South during the Civil War. Southern Democrats won in 1860 when Lincoln only got about 2,200 votes in the whole state of Maryland. Lincoln won in 1864 only because Union troops occupied the city and many municipal officials were in jail. In 1868, the forgotten Democrat Horatio Seymour beat the Republican Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant by more than 2 to 1 in Baltimore. Things have been like that pretty much ever since.

A young fellow named Gilbert A. Dailey, born on South Hanover Street of Irish immigrant parents, revived the somewhat dormant Stonewall in 1907 as a political club. He was president from then until 1934.

Howard Jackson, mayor of Baltimore in the 1920s, said that when Dailey and two other now legendary bosses, Sonny Mahon and Frank Kelly, got together "they could guarantee any election."

The Stonewall under McGuirk never had quite that kind of power, but he could deliver South Baltimore.

Della leads the way up to the second floor. His lamplight pulls out of the shadows a wall full of tarnished trophies and plaques celebrating long-forgotten athletic feats: "Steel Pier 50,000 Meter Walk AAU National Championship September 2, 1932 First Team Prize."

"We used to have oyster roasts, crab feasts, bull roasts and Christmas parties, beer and many a Coney Island hot dog," Della says.

Before a door at the top of the stairs, Della says, "That's McGuirk's office."

It's locked, perhaps remaining exactly as he left it, like a secular shrine to a local deity.

"Oh, no," Della says. "I never had a key, never did."

McGuirk would convene meetings of the Stonewall board at a green-felt-covered poker table in front of the Charles Street windows. A deck of cards was still on the table the other day, even though the board hasn't met here for years.

"He would share his wisdom," Della says. "And we would follow his lead. Harry would go downstairs and deliver the message.

"My father would run the meeting from the same position. When Harry passed, I did it.

"It's called leadership," he says, perhaps only half-facetiously.

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