Not often did William Donald Schaefer call me, but on that Monday more than 30 years ago, I expected it.
I'd had written an article in the old News American detailing how the old Potthast Brothers' furniture showroom at 924 N. Charles St. would be converted into a restaurant. A few months later, it made its debut as The Brass Elephant. A lot has happened along Charles Street since 1977, when the original article ran. But until the Elephant closed a few weeks ago, the old place remained true to the standards established by the German immigrant brothers who displayed their fine cabinetry in that Charles Street show window.
What prompted the mayor's call was the news that someone would be pumping money, style and new ideas into Charles Street in Mount Vernon. The news of the Elephant's arrival followed that of the revived Belvedere Hotel, which builder Victor Frenkil had just reopened after one of Baltimore's periodic bleak spells, when it appeared that the old city was falling apart.
The mayor was always looking for anything promising, and the report that a revered landmark would be preserved and given an economic lift prompted his call. He was deliriously happy.
Many a Baltimore bride aspired to a wedding gift of a Potthast dining room ensemble, but few could afford one. These handmade mahogany pieces were given a royal display at the family's Charles Street showrooms, an 1861 rowhouse that had been lavishly upgraded over the decades with inlaid parquet floors, fancy marble mantelpieces, intricate tilework and plaster filigrees worthy of Versailles.
The house at 924 N. Charles had been a private home until the families began moving away and this part of Charles Street ceased being a fashionable residential address and started being a fashionable shopping-services address. I'll list a few: Bachrach and Udel photographers; Carl the hairdresser; the French Shop; and Miller Brothers, as well as the cozy Mount Vernon and Harvey House restaurants and the wonderfully quirky Peabody Bookshop and Bier Stube.
As a child in the 1950s, I would pass Potthast Brothers and observe a business that hadn't been updated since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. The stately show window changed, but ever so slightly. One week, a Hepplewhite sideboard would appear. Then a set of Sheraton chairs, all made in the firm's Wicomico Street factory.
Time and economics caught up with Charles Street's genteel and deliberate ways by the 1970s, and the treasure that was Potthast closed.
So after William S. Paley Jr., the son of the TV mogul, bought 924 with two partners, no wonder Mayor Schaefer was on the phone.
The Paley group wisely preserved the old home's lavish interior and picked an apt name for their efforts. There was a row of brass elephant tusk sidelights in the front hall corridor. They had these curious light fixtures polished and christened the works The Brass Elephant. The Sun's John Dorsey led off his review by saying, "Without question, this is Baltimore's most beautiful restaurant."
The Paley group's luck did not hold. The Small Business Administration foreclosed on the property in 1980. But the next ownership got it right. "We had a great, 29-year ride," said Jack Elsby, who is now at the Milton Inn in Sparks, but who greeted The Brass Elephant's clientele as they passed through that heavy iron front door for all those happy times.