Walking and Talking about Historic Architecture: Sometimes it’s a challenge!

Posted on February 25th, 2013 by

abby krolik copyA blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik.

A week or two ago a teacher from a college in Pennsylvania called me, asking about Jewish cultural sites to visit in Baltimore that would be open on a Saturday because that was when she was bringing her World Religions class on a field trip here. I told that was going to be a little difficult.

What I could offer, however, was to email her a copy of our self-guided walking tour. She seemed excited about that, and our conversation ended on a satisfied note. The only problem now was that I knew the tour hadn’t been updated since 2007, and the “construction sites” mentioned in the script were now the completed houses of Albemarle Square.

For those of you who don’t know (and this might even include some JMM staff members!), our self-guided walking tour takes the visitor around our neighborhood of Historic Jonestown and tells a little about the history of some of the buildings that you see—and some of the buildings that you don’t see. For example, one of the stops is the old Hendler’s Creamery Company building on Baltimore Street, and another is the Russian Bath that once occupied the space where Lenny’s Deli now stands.

1997.16.1

1997.16.1

Ilene and I looked through the tour, updated it to match the current landscape, and we also decided to add more information. In the old script, almost nothing was mentioned about St John the Baptist Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church other than the fact that the congregation occupied the Lloyd Street Synagogue from 1890 to 1905. So, I added some tidbits that I thought would be very interesting about how the Lithuanian Catholics used their building. Did you know that the Lithuanian Garment Workers’ Union was founded in Lloyd Street Synagogue? Well, now you do, and anyone who takes the walking tour will also know that fact.

We also added more information about the Carroll Mansion, which is a couple of blocks away from us, but in order to do that, I had to do a little bit of research about the building’s history myself. I had no idea that the Mansion had gone through so many phases in its long life. I thought the Lloyd Street Synagogue had a complicated life story, but the Carroll Mansion has got it beat! First, it was the residence of the Carroll family—including the famous Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence. It later became a tenement house for immigrants, and then a sweatshop-tenement combo, and then it was a vocational school, and a recreation center, and a WPA project during the Great Depression, until 1962, when it finally became a museum.

The part of historic restoration and preservation that fascinates me the most is what you do with a building that has had several roles in its life. To what era do you restore it? Is it more important to highlight the mansion’s first incarnation as the residence of an important personage? Do you use the building to talk about sweatshops? Or could you use it to talk about the Great Depression? There are so many roads to choose, and I don’t know how to even begin deciding which one to take.

The Jewish Historical Society/Jewish Museum of Maryland had a similar dilemma with Lloyd Street Synagogue, and they ended up creating an interesting compromise—combining elements of the building that were present during Baltimore Hebrew’s tenure and that of Shomrei Mishmeres.

carroll mansion

 

I think it’s time I made a little field trip to the Carroll Mansions to see how they dealt with this challenge.

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Read’s Drug Store: The Jewish Connection

Posted on February 21st, 2011 by

If you’ve been following the news in Baltimore lately, you know that a major campaign is underway to save the Read’s Drug Store building from demolition. Part of the West Baltimore downtown shopping district “Superblock” slated for redevelopment, Read’s was the site of an historic civil rights protest in 1955, when a group of Morgan State college students conducted a sit-in at the lunch counter, a full five years before the famous lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Last month I went on a walking tour of the Superblock sponsored by Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

You can read all about the sit-in at the website of Baltimore Heritage, Inc., one of the groups leading the charge to save this historic building. It’s an exciting story, remarkable both for the inspiring and well-coordinated actions of the Morgan students (concurrent with their protest at Read’s flagship store on Howard and Lexington, they staged demonstrations at a Read’s near the Morgan campus in northeast Baltimore) and for the quick capitulation of Read’s officials. Within two days of the sit-in at the downtown store, a front-page headline in the Afro-American announced a victory. Read’s President Arthur Nattans Sr. stated that “We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately.”

Read’s Drug Store is the building on the right.

Read’s Drug Store had been owned by the Nattans family since 1899, when Arthur Sr.’s father purchased the original downtown store from druggist William Read. A German Jewish family that had first settled in Washington, D.C., the Nattans moved to Baltimore and became active in Jewish institutions such as the Suburban Club and Levindale. By 1934, the family had forty drugstores in operation in the Baltimore-D.C. area. That year, the Nattans completely rebuilt and remodeled the original Read’s into the Art Deco building that exists under threat of demolition today. The family sold its chain to Rite Aid in 1977.

Domino sugar tablets, wrapped in paper with "Read's" logo, from the collection. 1990.160.001

Because the family kept the original Read’s name on its stores, the chain’s Jewish ownership has been somewhat obscured. The Nattans belong in the same category as the Hutzlers, Gutmans, Hoschchilds, Kohns, Hechts, Epsteins—retailers who made an indelible mark on the Baltimore scene. And like those other Jewish retailers, the Nattans went along with Baltimore’s Jim Crow traditions until forced to change during the civil rights era. (You can read about discrimination against blacks at Jewish-owned department stores in an excellent article by Paul Kramer, “White Sales,” published in our Enterprising Emporiums catalog back in 2001.)

Cigar box with "Read's" logo, from the collection. 1990.160.002

But the speed with which the Nattans desegregated their lunch counters when confronted by the Morgan students indicates that they might not have been enthusiastic participants in the discriminatory practices that were rampant in Baltimore into the mid twentieth century. Most retailers feared that if they served blacks equally, they would lose their white customers, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that their fears were not unjustified. According to the Afro article mentioned above, when the sit-in began, an unnamed Read’s official called Morgan’s dean and asked him to “Please call your students off. . . .  We’re losing business.” The dean refused, and by the end of the conversation, the official told him, “Well, we are in sympathy with this thing—we’ll see what can be done.”

Paper bag with the "Read's" logo and EMPLOYEE PURCHASE across front, from the collection. 1990.160.003.

And the rest is history: Baltimore history, civil rights history, even Jewish history. Let’s hope that city officials recognize the importance of the Read’s store—and the other historic buildings on the Superblock—and redevelop the West Side by building on our heritage, not by tearing it down.

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