Fiola S. Blum, founder of a prominent real estate firm whose distinctive red-and-white for-sale signs have been a fixture in Northwest Baltimore for more than 50 years, died of a heart attack Wednesday at her Pikesville home. She was 93.
Born Fiola Shapiro at home in the 4800 block of Park Heights Ave., she later moved with her family to Forest Park.
She graduated in 1929 from Forest Park High School and the next year married James D. Blum, a Hecht Co. buyer who later earned a real estate license.
During World War II, Mrs. Blum volunteered with the Red Cross and after the war hoped to get a part-time job.
"When she told my father she was going to get a job, he laughed. He said 6 million soldiers were coming home from the war looking for a job, and what was she going to do?" said her son, Harry M. Blum II of Pikesville.
Mrs. Blum answered two help-wanted ads she saw in the newspaper: one was to sell real estate and the other to sell The World Book of Knowledge.
"Jim said, 'If you think you're going out at night selling the Book of Knowledge, you're out of your cotton-pickin' mind. Fiddle around with real estate if you want to play with it,'" Mrs. Blum said in a 2001 interview with the Jewish Women's Archive in Brookline, Mass.
She obtained her real estate license and went to work for Wallace Flowers Co. and later S.L. Hammerman Co., Baltimore real estate firms.
"Well, I sold the first house on Glen Avenue for $17,000 in the first month of my being in the real estate business. But, I was very good at selling, not so hot at listing. And, anything that came along, I more or less had a customer for it," she said in the interview.
In 1949, Mrs. Blum established Fiola Blum Inc. in the breakfast room of her Bonfield Road home, and was later joined in the business by her husband, who became president of the company. He died in 1980.
"She went out and started a company at a time when women didn't do that," said her son, who has operated the company since 1980. "She was a good outside salesman, and my father was a good inside man. And when me and my brother moved out of the house, she took over our bedrooms for additional office space."
As business increased, Mrs. Blum, who referred to herself as a "kitchen broker," needed larger facilities and in 1966 relocated the company to 110 Slade Ave., where it remains.
Mrs. Blum fought against restricted neighborhoods that by covenants didn't welcome homeownership by Jews or blacks.
"She sold a home to a Haitian doctor who was on the staff at Sinai Hospital and she couldn't believe the hate mail that came in. The same thing happened when she sold to a Chinese family," her son said. "All of it went into the trash. She was color- and gender-blind."
She also fought prejudice in her own profession and was the first woman to serve on the board of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and finally as a member of the Multiple Listing Board, which initially refused to let her join.
"She was one of the pioneering women in real estate, and this was at a time when men dominated the business and didn't accept women into its hierarchy. And because she kept pushing, they now dominate the business," said Philip W. Chase Jr., a retired Baltimore real estate executive and former partner in Chase Fitzgerald & Co.
"Even though she was tough, it was still not a very easy thing to do what she did in the 1940s. However, she managed to carve out a niche, which was predominantly Northwest Baltimore, but she also managed to get prime listings for Guilford as well," Mr. Chase said.
Mrs. Blum also was involved with the construction of several area condominium developments including the Imperial, Suburban Oaks, Park Towers West and One Slade.
"Fiola Blum is a legend and one of the great old-timers. She had a big personality like Auntie Mame or Carol Channing, and when she entered a room, everyone turned around because she was gregarious and full of happiness," said Mal Sherman, a retired Rouse Co. executive and real estate consultant. "She was an excellent competitor and had an outstanding reputation and following."
Semiretired since 1984, Mrs. Blum still maintained an interest in the business and would still come into the office.
She was a former member of the Suburban Club and enjoyed golf, travel and playing bridge.
Mrs. Blum was a member of Oheb Shalom Congregation, 7310 Park Heights Ave., where a memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. today.
Surviving, in addition to her son, are six grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Another son, James D. Blum Jr., died in 1983.