Customers walk into her Village of Cross Keys shop and ask Betty Cooke if she still has a place on Tyson Street in downtown Baltimore's Mount Vernon. She did, beginning in 1946, when she bought a ramshackle 1830s rowhouse and joined fellow pioneer renovators. She had her design and jewelry shop in the home's front and her workbench in the back. In time, she and her husband and business partner, William Steinmetz, expanded their shop and design studio to an L-shaped collection of buildings at Read and Tyson.
Cooke, who is 90, is in her 73rd year of designing and selling jewelry. Her elegant designs made her a 1996 member of the American Craft Council's College of Fellows. She set up her personal jewelry-making "bench" in 1942.
The story of Betty and Bill is entwined with Baltimore. She grew up in Walbrook and walked past the Bloomingdale Oval to Gywnns Falls Junior High. She credits those morning strolls through the stream valley with her love of nature — and as part of her design inspiration.
After graduating from Western High School, she studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art. By her senior year, she was designing and selling jewelry. She mentions her teachers, Henrietta Dew, Elizabeth Shannon and Hughes Wilson, as giving her a good start.
"But I was always true to myself," she said. "You go your own direction."
At Tyson and Read streets, she encountered a compact but potent commercial neighborhood redolent of old Baltimore and young talent. Artist Edward Rosenfeld was its informal mayor; Peale Museum director Wilbur Hunter, who lived at Ruxton Alley and Tyson, lent encouragement and staged the annual Life in Baltimore art shows. Cabinetmaker and MICA teacher Harry Dillehunt had his workroom and home here. His wife, Adelaide Strouse, was a Hutzler's ad executive.
On Hamilton Street, another charming small thoroughfare in Mount Vernon, Ada and Edith Straus were well established high-end merchants. The Straus sisters were highly respected for their concepts.
Two institutions, the Medical Arts Building (now apartments but once solidly physicians and dentists) and Betty Patterson's Specialty Bakery brought customers from across the city to what traditional Baltimore considered a bohemian destination. Howard Street's Antique Row, around the corner, was also a draw.
"I paid $3,000 for that house on Tyson Street," Cookesaid. "We had to take out six carloads of trash and 20 cats." She and Steinmetz, a fellow MICA graduate, married in 1955. He was from the Patterson Park area and a Polytechnic Institute graduate. He was picked out early to go into design. As a high school student, he studied Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays at The Institute, as Baltimoreans called what is now MICA.
Cooke's elegant jewelry, which often involves a geometric mobile — tubular rods and dangling, silvery shapes — was soon worn by Baltimore's well-dressed.
She and her husband also did interiors. They outfitted Eastpoint's Mischanton's Restaurant with Eames and Bertoia furniture. Their use of color and style also brought them a design order from Fair Lanes Bowling. The Friedberg family asked them to provide a clean, colorful modernist look for new bowling centers.
The couple closed the Mount Vernon studio, and relocated to James Rouse's Village Square at Cross Keys in 1965. They named their expanded business The Store Ltd. It was among the first shops to open. It remained true to the couple's steady, unerring taste, which mixes a Bauhaus look with a touch of whimsy and the carefully selected craft pieces. They both work daily at The Store.
James Rouse had his office above the Cooke-Steinmetz Store Ltd.
"When we got something new and fun in, we'd take it outside in the court square," Cooke said. "Jim would appear at his balcony."