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Photographic double-take offers a then-and-now look at Baltimore's great buildings

A relatively current image of the Noxzema building.
A relatively current image of the Noxzema building. (Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of / HANDOUT)

A new Baltimore Museum of Industry photographic exhibition poses a question about the city: In the past century we've changed, but how much?

The comparison point is a staggering 80,000-image archive from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., taken over the years as part of the utility's daily operations. Who knew that in addition to meters and power lines, the company had a store of photographs?

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The exhibition at the Key Highway museum, "Then and Now: Baltimore in the Public Eye," contrasts photos of Baltimore buildings taken by volunteer contemporary photographers with historic photos of the same structures.

The result is a thought-provoking tour of a Baltimore where the past and present live side by side.

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As I walked through the museum, I found myself engaged not only by the photography but by the artifacts on display that have connections to the photos. And while I am tempted to say the experience had nostalgic moments, I left feeling that Baltimore remains a hardworking city where the old industrial base has been repurposed for today.

The show is a revealing portrait of an energetic, get-the-job done, hold-the-frills city; a Baltimore where products were manufactured and goods and services mixed it up in a busy downtown.

"Then and Now," on display through this year, shows the city's quirks and our elegant grace notes of architecture and geography.

Our majestic harbor is, of course, always a photogenic winner. But so too is the North Avenue Market, with the Maryland Avenue corner Read's drugstore depicted in 1928 and, by its side, a contemporary image with the Red Emma bookstore and restaurant tucked into the same space.

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Another fine pairing reveals that the 1926 Noxzema plant near Falls Road in Hampden has changed little in 90 years — except that the product is no longer made there.

There's a haunting quality to a night scene of Park Avenue at Lexington Street, taken in 1955, that shows the glowing neon clock at the old Kresge's variety store and the Julius Gutman department store. The modern image shows an uncannily similar physical scene. That clock still glows at nights, thanks to careful preservation of the Art Deco building.

Gone, however, are the silvery streetcar rails of the old No. 32 Liberty Heights Avenue line, a reminder of Baltimore's diminished public transportation infrastructure despite the best efforts of the nearby light rail and Metro.

You don't have to be a Baltimore history scholar to appreciate the pairing of a shot outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards with one taken nearly 90 years ago. There's a frenetic scene at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad brick warehouse on South Eutaw Street; trucks seem engaged in a demolition derby as they jostle for position to load and unload their freight.

And yet, when a crowd fills the same space for a ball game nowadays, is it any less busy?

There are photos of the old Hooper's Restaurant at Charles and Fayette streets, initially replaced by a Hamburgers men's clothing store, then replaced again by a Johns Hopkins University structure.

The 1960s Mohawk Motor Inn on Russell Street remains today, updated somewhat, as a Holiday Inn Express. Another landmark that is only a little altered is Locke Insulators near Port Covington. In the comparative photos, only the employees' parked automobiles have changed in 60 years.

"You see the industry in the city has downsized but by no means has disappeared," said Joseph Abel, the show's curator. "The industries that are left are more service- and entertainment-based rather than mass production. And yet, with Domino Sugars, you can still see Baltimore's roots as a manufacturing town.

"At times, Baltimore defies an easy categorization," Abel said.

Alas, some things do change. The Regent Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue in the historically black entertainment area is gone; the photos show it at its busiest and again today as a rather tame neighborhood shopping district.

Today, developers make over the mills along the Jones Falls Valley and restore them to a neat-and-nice look so appreciated by tenants who occupy studio apartments. In the images that show active, working textile industries, these same places appear anything but refined. The "then" images reveal the mills to be the sooty, hardscrabble places they were.

This show squarely addresses the physical, built-environment aspects of Baltimore. I came away thinking that on a building-by-building comparison, Baltimore has not changed dramatically.

Of course, viewing certain images might remind you, for example, of the times you had a chocolate soda at the old Hecht-May department store on Howard Street. You might be left with an insatiable craving. It's a risk worth taking.

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