My friend and neighbor Nick Prevas explained the other evening about how he became historian of the local Greek community.
He was 13 years old and at a cousin's funeral. His father, Michael, was greeting the assembled family members and told him to call everyone aunt or uncle. Then, after the wake was over, his father drew him a diagram, a family tree.
Nick caught genealogy fever on the spot and that soon morphed into his current opus, House of God ... Gateway to Heaven. It is the centennial history of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, but it is really the story of the people in that congregation. It's 460 pages, the size of telephone book, and at $60, nearly the cost of dinner for two at the Ikaros Restaurant.
It is clearly a volunteer labor of love. His index of names, from Michael Adams to Michael Zotos, runs on nearly 25 pages of clearly printed type.
Nick's book will be of compelling interest to members of his congregation; but in many ways, it's a story of Baltimore, too, especially the upper Mount Vernon neighborhood of Preston Street and Mount Royal Avenue and the Cathedral neighborhood.
I opened Nick's book and soon had one question answered: Where was the downtown version of Boys' Latin School? A 1906 map revealed the Lyric, Mount Royal Station, the old Bryn Mawr School (site of Meyerhoff Hall) and the elusive Boys' Latin.
"Between 1890 and 1910, nearly 200,000 Greeks, or one-tenth the population of Greece, made the journey across the Atlantic and began settling throughout the United States," he wrote in the book. He also managed to find excellent photos of the steamships that carried the immigrants here.
He culled city directories and found the few obvious Greek surnames here in the 1880s - a saloonkeeper, a fruit dealer and a confectioner. By 1901, the directory lists more than two dozen Greeks as confectioners.
Many Orioles Park fans begin a trip to a game with a bag of peanuts from the Konstant counter at Lexington Market. Who knew that George Konstantopoulos (Konstant) and his brother, Antonios, were founding fathers of the community? Their homemade taffy and peanut brittle, coffee and chili dog counter endures, more than a century later, and remains in family hands.
Because I have a sweet tooth, I was fascinated by the stories of the early confectioners and the photos that Nick seems to have found on hundreds of home visits. Think of the Prevas luncheonette and soda fountain at the Broadway market, or Sempeles Brothers at Belair Market, or Menas Tzortzopoulos (Charles M. George), who made all those delectable chocolate Easter bunnies at 2304 E. Monument St.
Another George, George B. Conits, had a cafe opposite Penn Station at Oliver and Charles. I had always heard that during Prohibition in the 1920s, bars were converted into soda fountains. There's a dandy 1934 photo of the Conits cafe, with its proper Tennessee-marble soda fountain setup. The photo tellingly shows a spot once reserved for a Coke dispenser that was now filled with an array of Seagram's bottled products.
Tonight is the Orthodox Holy Saturday and the great Easter vigil. It's an inspiring sight to see the lighted candles along Preston Street at the Cathedral, which the book reveals began its life as the Associate Congregational Church. This remarkable Byzantine-Romanesque building almost became a Conoco gas station in 1937. But that's another story. For $40,000, the congregation bought the place, and it never looked back.