Baltimore 1976

Baltimore in mid-July 1976 when the tall ships visited for the U.S. Bicentennial.


Baltimore Saturdays

August 1, 2016

Twenty years after my father's death I have to remind myself that the saintly "Big Neal" oftentimes drove me crazy when I was a young man. Some of the irritation was due to my having yet to be, as Mark Twain was of his father, amazed at how smart mine had become by the time I reached manhood. In my case, I was well into majority when the dawn about Dad broke forth.

Otherwise we were two very different people. He was the popular ex-Georgetown basketball player who read a good book now and then, but who knew authors more by name than by their work, who kept The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball under the bed with The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I was the non-athlete who disappointed everybody -- except my father -- in being non-athletic, who read books, then started typing them when I was 12, who collected collections, who tried such things as making lead copies of coins in plaster molds and who played and planned with our trains.

The trains were the first knitting of the bond between Dad and me. He had his childhood Lionel train from 1926, accumulated more sets and accessories before I was born. He was a pioneer collector by the time he came home from work one day to find, to his dismay, that I had pulled the trains out of storage and had strewn them all over the living room with their being no hope of ever repacking them just for Christmas. Baltimore, 35 miles away, was where the bond was fleshed and boned.

Pikesville MD Nat. Guard Armory

The Pikesville Armory

In 2016 the Maryland National Guard Armory in Pikesville (just across the Baltimore city line), built in 1903, closed forever. It was a dumpy venue for train, gun and pet shows with a men's room that flooded, but it will always be a hallowed hall to me. Dad and I went to train meets there for eleven years starting in 1968. I can think of no other place where after almost four decades I can remember so many moments and the exact spots where they happened: buying this piece, seeing that piece we couldn't afford (and never seeing it again), talking to a certain fellow collector.

Those long-ago meets were almost as much about socializing with the brethren as they were about trading. Most men, including my father, wore jackets and ties. We got to know several local gentleman in the true sense of the word: T. Milton Oler whose forebears molded ornamental plaster and who invited us to his antique-and-curio-filled Regester Ave. house a couple times; Hugo Keuhn, tall as my Dad, who summoned us to his Moyer Ave. domicile to pick up a valuable prize that he had claimed for us after we had departed before the drawing; Al Franceschetti ("Franchetti"), a Brooklyn transplant who had worked for Lionel and who made replacement parts. Others included Jerome Williams who started Williams Electric Trains in his Laurel, MD, garage, and his assistant, a short kid my age named Mike Wolf.

Pikesville MD Nat. Guard Armory

The armory's interior in 2008, little changed from the early 1970s.

A quality meet like Pikesville attracted dealers and collectors from all over, including a real-life ex-Nazi. Present at Pikesville one March was Gustavo (Gustav) Reder all the way from Madrid. Reder's fellow collectors probably never knew that "Don Gustavo," German-born and educated, had been a Nazi who worked in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda tentacle in Spain in the 1930s and '40s. Reder must have kept a low profile; U.S. intelligence concluded that he did not actually exist. Unscathed in Spain by Nazism's defeat, Reder held railroad-related jobs in Madrid and contributed articles to The Train Collectors Quarterly.

The Ladies Join Us

Like most women of their generations, my mother and grandmother frequently went on Saturdays to the big department stores in downtown Washington: Woodward & Lothrop ("Woodies"), Hecht's, Kann's and Lansburgh's. My Dad and I would kill our time going to Corr's Hobby Shop at 9th and H and occasionally a little hole-in-the-wall, Keane's Model Railroad Shop (proclaimed by a neon sign) on the very brief G Place. Keane's was for model railroaders who had been at it since 1939 and who were comfortable with buying boxes of wood and metal bits that they somehow fashioned into rail vehicles.

Every time I go to Baltimore, I remember those places and people of four decades past that are gone, especially when I'm homing and see the sky's glow fading to purple and black as evening comes on.

That routine ended with the Metro subway construction of Metro Center and Gallery Place Stations. All the streets around Woodies were covered with thick wooden beams. Finding a parking space became difficult. I remember a Saturday night in November of 1970, standing on the steps of St. Patrick's Church with Dad, waiting for Mom and Nana to emerge from Woodies with all its famous animated Christmas window displays agoing. Another church nearby was chiming Christmas carols such as Hark The Herald Angels sing. A light snow was falling. That was the last time we went Saturday shopping in downtown DC.

My parents decided that it might be easier to drive 35 miles up the BW Parkway than to find parking in the excavated shopping district of Washington. Thus eyes turned to Baltimore and its downtown department stores: Hutzler's, Hochschild-Kohn and Stewart's all lining Howard Street. My Dad and I looked in Model Railroader for a hobby store we could visit while the womenfolk shopped. We found one: M.B. Klein, Inc., est. 1913, on the corner of Saratoga and Gay Streets.

Stepping In Anticipation

Our first visit was very auspicious. We saw a really cool item and waited in suspense while young Ted Klein calculated the price in U.S. dollars from Swiss francs. $15.00! Corr would have wanted $30 or more for the same thing if he had it. That was the first of many tremendous bargains. In addition to the half-yearly sojourn to the Pikesille meet, we went to Klein's at least once a month over the next several years. Klein's became my parents' go-to place for my Christmas and birthday presents. How could my father afford it? He played all-night poker every Friday and he always won (Another story).

M.B. Klein Model Trains Saratoga & Gay Sts

Klein's Gay Street store, painted red in its latter years.

A visit to Klein's began with stepping in anticipation from the glare raised by the Gay St. sidewalk and the white-painted storefront into Klein's interior, an entrance that required eye-adjustment. Inside the door on the left was a display case full of goodies. Klein's always had a tremendous selection of unusual items, imports, even old trains. Once we bought a whole layout and had to borrow a station wagon to bring it to Bethesda.

If Ted Klein didn't have it, he would order it. I learned that there were such things as models of Polish National Railway (Polskie Koleje Panstwowe) passenger cars. To the delight of my Krasnopol-born grandmother, who was taught to appreciate her nationality and heritage, I displayed a promise of similar discernment by yearning for a set.

Those were still the days of the Iron Curtain and the cars were made in East Germany. Thinking it was an impossible order, we approached Ted Klein. He flipped through a wholesaler's thick catalog. The PKP cars were available for pick-up in three weeks. They joined the collection during my grandmother's last year with us. While I've had to sell most of the treasures we got from Klein's, I still cherish those cars.

Schicht PKP

HO Ga. Polish National Railways car made behind The Iron Curtain

Hobby-store owners tend to be sociopaths. I should say tended because hobby shops, once common in post-World-War II suburbia and center cities, have pretty much gone the way of TV and radio repair shops. The only joy in the life of the miserable creatures who ran train and model outlets seemed to come from charging top dollar to the occasional customer whom they resented and wanted gone if he wasn't spending money.

St. Ignatius Baltimore

St. Ignatius, built 1856, at Calvert and Madison Streets.

Model railroaders and train collectors loved their hobby enough to put up with these ogres and pay their prices (if they could), but the dealers were in trouble if a place run by a friendly and polite staff that sold at tremendous discounts was in town. Klein's was always crowded, with a long line stretching from the cash register far back into the store. In all of Baltimore in the 1970s, there was only one other hobby shop that sold new trains.

Impromptu (meaning very amateurish) video about one of my long-ago Pikesville purchases.

During our early visits, old Maurice B. Klein, who had founded the business as a hardware/paint dispensary in 1913, was still around, but, by 1971, the hardware-turned-train store was owned by his son, Ted. Looking like a handsome young rabbi (without the beard), the dignified and dispassionate Ted stood behind the counter, gently commanding the staff to get this or that for customers. Ted had no personal interest in the train hobby. It was business, but customers were treated politely whether or not they spent money. All of Klein's employees called you "Sir."

Came a Saturday we were disappointed to find Klein's closed. It was a Jewish holy day. Ted always displayed a menorah, a Christmas tree and a manger scene in December. In the age of generic "holidays," in the retail world, he continues to display them in his Cockeysville, Maryland location to which the business moved in 2007. The store's old site at Saratoga and Gay is currently a parking lot, a fraction of a block on which a developer hopes to build a highrise. It was reported that customers of the demolished old store took bricks as souvenirs.

Further Adventures

After patronizing Klein's, Dad and I still had a couple hours to kill before meeting the womenfolk. Sometimes we drove to other train shops or to railroad-related sites. Camden Station, forgotten before the Camden Yards renewal, was an amazing time-capsule of varnished wood unchanged since the early 1900s.

Usually we parked near the department stores, in a Fayette-and-Eutaw garage in which cars gyred up and down helices in the center and which provided an eye-level view of the granite Greek comedy masks on the old burlesque theater that is today the Everyman. Then we wandered around downtown.

Once we visited the Cathedral of The Assumption, then a gloomy place years away from its glorious millenial restoration. We also crossed Cathedral Street to explore the beautiful flagship Enoch Pratt Free Library. Another time we stepped into a church that made our jaws drop with its intense, ornate, Teutonic wood-carved beauty. It was, of course, the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori on Saratoga Street, rectored in the 1850s by Redemptorists St. John Neumann and Blessed Francis Seelos.

St. Alphonsus, Baltimore MD

The breathtaking interior of St. Alphonsus on Saratoga St.

At Lexington Market there were severed pigs' heads grinning on tops of counters. My Mom bought pork chops there once but upon unwrapping them at home, she discovered that they were far from being as gorgeous as those displayed by the butcher at the front of his case. I didn't set foot in the two-century old market for 20 years and then I found it dirty and deappetizing.

In those days big-city department stores still boasted many offerings beyond clothing, shoes, perfumes, china and housewares. Some had serious toy selections and even gave space to camping equipment and sporting goods. I liked Hutzler's best. It fronted Howard Street with its original 1880s building augmented by a huge 1930 art-deco annex. Both structures still stand. Hutzler's had an extensive stamp department and a nice book department on a mezzanine. There along with Howard Cosell's autobiography and Fear of Flying one could find The American Language by H.L. Mencken and its supplements. Coffee-table books of A. Aubrey Bodine's Maryland photos were also always in stock.

Once in one of those stores we boarded an elevator and Dad removed his fedora. An elderly black lady passenger was amazed. "It's been yea's since I seen a gennaman take his hat off in an elevator!" she exclaimed. Remembering that incident reminds me of our bonding, of all the things I learned from Dad as we walked side by side through Baltimore places, how he treated people, how he reacted to situations, how he was always a Catholic gentleman. I hope I learned well.

By the way, the only other guy I ever saw remove his fedora in an elevator was Clark Clifford when he and I worked in the same building.

My Mom preferred the upscale Stewart's which distanced itself across Howard Street from Hutzler's and Hochschild-Kohn. The latter, called "Hoeshull's," had a corner entrance opening onto Howard and Lexington. That was where we always met Mom and Nana then, after 1973, just Mom alone. Sadly Hochschild's building from the 1890s burned down in 1983.

TootsieToy Hoschschild-Kohn Truck

A Tootsietoy truck made espcially for Hochschild-Kohn's dept. store around 1925.

Next on the agenda was Saturday vigil Mass. On the early excursions we drove out to St. William of York, a charming church, built 1915, at the fork of Edmondson Ave. and Route 40. Then we discovered St. Ignatius on Calvert Street and that it had a quick 4:30 pm. Mass. Our experience of the old Jesuit church I describe in My First Antiquarian And The Manly Art of Poetry.

A few times as evening came on we penetrated downtown Baltimore further to eat at Obrycki's, Haussner's or Jimmy Wu's New China Inn, all which are recalled in my Dining Guide Of The Past. If we went to Brooks Robinson's Gorsuch House, we followed that by taking in an Orioles game at the wonderful, intimate Memorial Stadium where we watched Brooks himself play, Earl Weaver get ejected and John Wesley "Boog" Powell lumber around the bases.

Once in one of those stores we boarded an elevator and Dad removed his fedora. An elderly black lady passenger was amazed. "It's been yea's since I seen a gennaman take his hat off in an elevator!" she exclaimed.

I mentioned at the outset that my father kept The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball -- two editions actually -- under his bed. This was for quick reference while he was watching games. Once Brooks, in his broadcasting life, mistated some baseball history. Out came the encyclopedia. The error was verified and a letter of correction was dispatched to Mr. Robinson. He responded with an autographed photo that I keep with the 1973 letter from Hank Aaron (Like the poker games, another story).

Otherwise the usual post-Mass routine was to stop at Westview or Security Mall for more shopping and eating dinner in one of the store restaurants. Dining rooms were another thing department stores had in their heyday. Most often we stopped at the Double T Diner in Catonsville, still going strong and much enlarged, at the corner of Rolling Road and Route 40.

Baltimore Orioles 1974 Scorecard

Orioles scorecard from the April 27, 1974 game against Oakland with manager Earl Weaver on the cover.

Believe it or not, on the way home we stopped at Columbia Mall, too, where Hochschild-Kohn anchored the Baltimore end, Hecht's dominated the wing reaching toward DC and there was a pet store that displayed a live bobcat named Rasputin. Columbia was in those days a nice, civilized mall that had good antique shows once or twice yearly.

You are no doubt thinking: That was certainly a lot of shopping! I'm not disagreeing and I'm not including non-Baltimore Saturdays, trips to Reading, PA outlets and elswhere. What did my mother buy? I'll never know all, but after she died I gave away dozens of black knit tops with the price tags still attached. It is only within the past couple years that I've started to see the end of inherited bedclothes and towels. I am still using one set of sheets from the 1970s and I believe I have another still sealed in the plastic.

Every time I go to Baltimore, I remember those places and people of four decades past that are gone, especially when I'm homing and see the sky's glow fading to purple and black as evening comes on. That is still the same. Something remains. I am certain that the people still exist somewhere. I wonder if the places continue their being as well.

A couple of times I've had a dream where Dad and I are in downtown Baltimore. We are on our way back to Klein's, but we can't seem to get there. We catch a glimpse of it. It is just around a corner; then it isn't. Perhaps will come a dream when we finally reach that glare-reflecting sidewalk out front and step inside once more.

Neal J. Conway 1976

Fifteen-year-old Neal Conway in front of German tall ship Gorch Foch in Baltimore Harbor, July 1976.

For Further Reading

My First Antiquarian And The Manly Art of Poetry

About Neal J. Conway main page