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Making old-style awnings in shade of harbor boom

Their name is Ferndale Fence and Awning, but they're not in Ferndale and they don't build fences.

What they do is make awnings - aluminum awnings that rattle in rainstorms, red-and-white peppermint stripe awnings for barbershops, little awnings that hang over rowhouse windows like drowsy eyelids, big awnings that shield whole families from the hot slap of July sun.

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For more than three decades, in a whitewashed brick workshop on Thames Street, using just a saw, a screw gun and their hands, Herb Zientak and his assistant, John Gilchrist, have built awnings - the old-fashioned kind made of shiny corrugated metal with scalloped valances and S-shaped scrolls.

While they were working, the neighborhood changed. One by one, the other factories and warehouses that once surrounded them closed.

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Workers in moon suits took apart the AlliedSignal plant that had once dominated the neighborhood and had buried dangerous chromium deep in the ground.

Zientak's old friends from his days as a longshoreman moved away.

Even Aggie's, the sandwich shop with good iced tea, shut down. And then the condominiums started to appear.

Today, Zientak's workshop - the heart of which dates from 1850 - is surrounded by condominiums and the construction sites of the Harbor Point development. Work will begin later this summer on three high-rises that will flank Zientak's two-story building at the intersection of Caroline, Thames and Block streets. Condominiums will rise in front of the workshop, blocking Zientak's view of the harbor.

But Zientak, 81, is adamant: "I ain't selling out."

It doesn't matter that he'll no longer be able to sit in a folding chair on the loading dock and watch the sailboats glide across the murky waters he swam as a boy. He gives the same answer to all the real estate agents who circle his shop, offering him $4 million for the property he bought for $35,000 in 1972: "No, thanks."

"Some real estate guy said, 'Let me buy it and then you can retire,'" Zientak says. "I told him if I didn't have this business, I wouldn't be here."

Zientak credits his good health to a lifetime of staying physically and mentally fit. If he retired, he'd be like a car left in the garage - rusting, he says.

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Three or four days a week, whenever he's not fishing at his place at the shore, Zientak measures sheets of aluminum on a pockmarked wooden table. Little shards of metal sparkle on his arm when he pushes the sheets through the circular saw.

He'll sell a door awning for $160, barely more than he charged a decade ago. But he's just the middleman. Independent dealers buy from him and sell the same awnings for $600 to $700. "They'll sell them for whatever people will pay," Zientak says. "That's why you got to shop around."

He barely notices the burnt-sugar breeze from the Domino Sugar refinery that winds through his workshop. Or the view, which opened up about 15 years ago when the Ruckert Terminal warehouse between him and the water was torn down.

"When you see it every day, you don't pay any attention," Zientak says.

Waterfront life

He should know. Ever since he was born in a Fells Street rowhouse in 1925, Zientak has lived in Fells Point in a house with a view of the water.

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As kids, Zientak and his 10 siblings played what he calls "caddy" - smacking a sharpened broomstick in the air - and hide-and-seek on the recreation pier. They walked over to the oyster dock at the B&O; Railroad warehouse in Canton, dove in the harbor and swam to the coal pier at what is now the Tide Point building in Locust Point. Occasionally, the police boat would pick them up for climbing on the coal and shuttle them home for spankings.

Zientak and his brothers scavenged large staples from shipping crates on the docks and shot them with homemade slingshots at bottles floating in the harbor. "All those bottles were bootleg bottles, you know," Zientak says. "The kind that you would get hooch in."

After he got out of the Army in 1945, Zientak found work as a ship sealer and then a longshoreman. All the guys who worked on the docks had nicknames, Zientak says, including each of his seven brothers. Leonard, the oldest, was "Zeppie," Albert was "Blah Blah," Howard was "Buzz" and Zientak himself was "Swifty" because he made his gang unload ships so fast.

When Leonard bought the Five Points bar on Thames Street - now called John Stevens Ltd. - nobody called it Leonard's. It was Zeppie's Five Points.

Eventually, Zientak left the docks to help his brother run the place, then saved some money to go into business with a few friends.

His bar buddies, Lou Romm and Cliff Cantrell, two fence builders from Ferndale, wanted to open their own shop, but property in Ferndale was too expensive. So they moved to an area with what were then cut-rate real estate prices - Fells Point.

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Focus on awnings

After Romm drowned in the Chesapeake Bay and Cantrell was disabled in a car accident, Zientak became the sole proprietor of the business in 1965, back when it was on Ann Street. Since fence orders were down and awning orders were up, he stopped making fences and just focused on the awnings.

That's when he hired Gilchrist. "When I first got in here, I thought, 'How many people have aluminum awnings? It's a couple of weeks' work,'" the Glen Burnie resident says. "And here I am 40 years later."

In 1972, Zientak moved the awning factory to its current location and renovated the office for the first and last time.

Zientak's newest employee - Pat Woods Polen - has answered the phone in the wood-paneled office for 31 years, ever since she graduated from high school. Between phone calls, she smokes cigarettes, props her feet on a pillow on the desk and watches Divorce Court on a flickering TV with an aluminum foil-covered antenna.

There's no computer in the office, just an adding machine, an electric typewriter, a flip-digit clock and a hand-cranked pencil sharpener. But that's OK: Polen knows all the awning salesmen by name and the customers from Essex, Dundalk and Glen Burnie who order from Ferndale directly.

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Polen is also a local, one of four generations to be born in a narrow house on Bethel Street. "The house was so small, we always used to say you had to go outside to change your mind," Polen said.

The office where Polen holds court looks more 1970s than 1850s, but the basement clearly comes from another century. The ceiling is barely six feet high with wooden joists held together by crudely cut square nails.

Zientak bends by the base of the narrow basement steps and points to what appears to be a small tree trunk protruding from the knobby gray stone walls. A pipe, Zientak explains, from the old days when water was carried by hollowed cherry tree trunks.

He keeps another in the basement that workers dug out from under the cobblestones a few years ago. The torpedo-shaped pipe has been rubbed smooth inside by the force of water. The narrowed end of one pipe fitted into the metal-banded wide end of the next, Zientak says. As water swelled the wood, the pipes held tight.

But the new people, the ones plunking down half a million or more for condominiums, don't think about the wooden pipes that once carried water under the city's streets, Zientak says. They don't even have aluminum awnings, and that's a shame.

"Years ago, before they had TV, you saw everybody outside after supper. You used to know all your neighbors. It's not like that anymore," Zientak says.

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"Now people should think about awnings because the electricity is going to be so high," Zientak says, referring to the BGE rate increase. "This way you can sit out on the steps. If you're inside, you've got the TV on, the air conditioning."

But Zientak knows that his little workshop won't be around forever. A decade ago, city officials wanted to knock down the building so that they could stretch Caroline Street to a straight line and run it across his property. Zientak says he was spared only because the city didn't have money for the project.

Gilchrist wonders whether one of the cranes at the HarborPoint site will "accidentally" drop something on the little brick building and destroy it.

Zientak's property - a hodgepodge of old rowhouses cobbled together to create an office, a tiny apartment and a workshop that has provided generations of Baltimoreans their summer shade - will look out of place among the glossy new buildings. On a HarborPoint proposal posted on the Struever Bros.' Web page, Ferndale Fence and Awning appears as a flat green and tan patch in an artist's rendering of the development.

"I think eventually they'll run you out of business," Gilchrist says to Zientak.

"Eventually," Zientak says, buckling on his leather tool belt and getting back to work.

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julie.scharper@baltsun.com



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