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Bernard R.E. 'Frankie' Francfort, artistic welder who advocated Baltimore restorations, dies

Bernard R.E. "Frankie" Francfort, former owner of a New York City display company who moved to Butchers Hill after retiring more than three decades ago, died of heart failure July 21 at Ma Maison, a Perry Hall assisted-living facility.

He was 90.

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The son of Marcel Jules Francfort, who operated family-owned livery carriage stables, and Marguerite Julie Maurer Francfort, a homemaker, Bernard Roger Edouard Francfort was born in Lausanne, Switzerland.

After graduating from high school in Lausanne, he enrolled at Art et Metier, a technical school, and graduated as a welding technician.

He worked at Ateliers de Construction Mechniques in Vevey, Switzerland, and later was a consultant for Wingate Co. in Rochester, England, where he investigated new welding techniques as they applied to visual and artistic projects.

After World War II, he desired to see the world and stowed away aboard a British oil tanker sailing for South Africa.

"A crazy idea, but he was determined and knew not to tell his family," his daughter, Narda Francfort Carroll, a Pigtown artist, wrote in a biographical profile of her father. "He packed a suitcase with a tuxedo and provisions enough to last several days at sea — so when he surfaced, the ship would be too far out [and] they could not turn back to return him."

After being discovered by a member of the crew, Mr. Francfort was turned in to the captain. The captain admired the daring young man's determination, but made him earn his passage by working in the ship's galley, washing dishes and peeling potatoes.

"As my father told it, for every dish he washed another went out of the porthole," Ms. Carroll wrote.

In the late 1940s, he worked in Geneva as a film and entertainment critic for Le Soir and Cinemagazine.

Because of his surname and penchant for wearing bow ties — as favored by Frank Sinatra — he was nicknamed "Frankie" by his friends.

He emigrated to New York City in 1950, and the next year met and fell in love with Marie Antoinette "Toni" Petoletti, a lingerie buyer for B. Altman & Co. They married in 1951.

Thanks to his creativity and artistic flair, Mr. Francfort was hired in 1951 as display manager of interior window displays for B. Altman & Co.

In 1953, he started his own company, BREF Displays, specializing in window displays for women's fashions.

His business expanded to include interior exhibits and commercial interior design for clients such as travel agencies, and food and jewelry stores in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Francfort's unique window designs incorporated such items as a wooden airplane propeller, African spears or fiddleys from scrapped Liberty ships, which he acquired during excursions to salvage yards.

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"I was 7 years old and we were coming back from Florida when we had a flat tire. The station wagon was jammed with items my parents had picked up — including a harp," Ms. Carroll recalled with a laugh.

"He had to take everything out of the car to get to the spare tire. He told me to hold the harp, so there I was on the side of the highway, holding the harp and looking as though I was giving an impromptu roadside concert," she said.

In 1958, Mr. Francfort and his wife purchased a pre-Civil War home in Annandale, N.J., which they restored, Then in 1984 they moved to Baltimore to a former Butchers Hill store — complete with a display window.

"We wanted to move to a small city and really liked this area for a number of reasons," Mrs. Francfort told The Baltimore Sun in a 1996 interview. "Every weekend we visited our daughter and she would take us on driving tours of the various neighborhoods."

Mr. Francfort continued operating his business and commuting to New York and New Jersey until retiring in 1990.

The couple threw themselves into various community groups and associations that focused on healthy neighborhoods and housing restoration projects.

They advocated for the historic Todd House on North Point Road, which dates to 1661 and played a strategic role in stopping the British advance on Baltimore during the Battle of North Point in 1814. Working with the Friends of Patterson Park, the Francforts worked on the restoration of the park and its landmark pagoda. Mr. Francfort contributed to the effort and restored its wrought-iron railing.

He also worked with other Butchers Hill residents in establishing the annual summer music series that takes place in the park. He joined with Pat and Dave Phoebus and several others in building the stage for the performers.

In 1987, the couple — along with future son-in-law Rodney Carroll, a sculptor — established BMR Studios, which they installed in a renovated former furniture factory in Pigtown that dated to 1903. It was Mr. Francfort who led the building's restoration.

Ms. Carroll said her father, who often wore a beret and tweed jacket, used to accompany her husband on his sculpture installations, and with his French accent was often mistaken for the artist.

"It was great, he would talk to and explain the sculpture to a passerby, and I could keep working," said Mr. Carroll. "We both loved it."

Mr. Francfort enjoyed sailing the Volatus, a 37-foot Tayana boat owned by his daughter and son-in-law.

"He brought such a wonderful joie de vivre to life," his daughter said. "He was fun to be around, he loved adventures and was a wonderful dad."

Mrs. Francfort's died in 2015.

He donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board and requested his ashes be tossed from the porthole of a ship into the sea so "he could continue his adventures," his daughter wrote.

A celebration of Mr. Francfort's life will be held at 3 p.m. Nov. 6 at BMR Studios, 920 Clifford St.

He is survived by his daughter and her husband.

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