Imagine a neoclassic palace of a building. Rounded arches, carved cornices, six levels of shopping and large windows at street level to show off the merchandise. A place where you could buy dry goods, notions, shoes, books and appliances all under one roof, a store convenient to the streetcar and to other downtown shopping at its location at Howard and Lexington. You would think such a place would thrive forever.
And yet, not long after the building’s opening, one of the store’s owners overheard one woman tell another, “It’s beautiful, but it can’t possibly last.”
The store owner was Max Hochschild and the store, Hochschild, Kohn & Co., was Baltimore’s first downtown department store. Hochschild’s more than outlasted that anonymous woman’s predictions. It even outlasted Max Hochschild, a man known for his longevity (he kept an office in the downtown store from his retirement in 1925 until 1957, two weeks shy of his 102nd birthday).
Founded in 1897 by Hochschild and brothers Benno Kohn and Louis B. Kohn, and designed by Joseph Evans Sperry, an innovative architect whose firm was one of the first to design buildings with elevators and flush toilets (the Bromo-Seltzer Tower is his most famous creation), Hochschild, Kohn & Co. remained at Lexington and Howard until 1977, when it became the first of the Baltimore department stores to abandon its downtown flagship.
Until then, it was the place to go to visit the Smoothie Shop for ladies corsets and full slips, or the hat department, where you could buy a Tailored Topper with your charga-plate. Shoppers left messages in Hochschild’s Appointment Book just inside the Howard Street entrance to tell friends to meet them for lunch at the sixth-floor Georgia Tea Room, checked purchases that would later be delivered home by the uniformed drivers, and perused the well-stocked book shop. Hochschild’s sold lamps and typewriters, fountain pens and furs, “better dresses,” pet supplies and beauty services. But still, as Michael Lisicky, author of “Hutzler’s: Where Baltimore Shops,” reflects, “Hochschild’s was where the common folk shopped.”
Hochschild’s president Martin Kohn echoed this sentiment in a store bulletin from the 1970s when he described Hochschild’s place in Baltimore’s department store history. “Hochschild Kohn was not known as a high-fashion store,” he wrote. “Its volume was in the middle to better price range, and for its volume, it depended on its interesting and aggressive promotion, its broad stocks, its competitive pricing— but most of all, on its good will.” Hochschild’s valued customer service favored a liberal return policy and boasted that they sponsored “no fake sales,” even fashioning a complex set of rules for their Bargain Fridays, where set items were priced at least 15 percent off the regular price.
Despite this, Hochschild’s still had class. Former Hochschild’s employee Virginia Brunk Franklin recalled a 1943 training lecture in which female employees were told: “No bare arms, no bright dresses, no loud jewelry, no fancy hairstyles, no gum, no pencil behind the ear, and never, never call the customer ‘Hon’ or ‘Honey!’”
Sister Dorothy Daiger, SSND, whose father, Harry E. Daiger, was Hochschild’s production manager and did layouts for newspaper ads from 1945 to 1969, was a teen model for the store in the mid-1940s when girls from local high schools were chosen to model store merchandise. “You went to Teen World and picked out what you liked and then you put it on and you would model it in the tea room,” recalls Sister Dorothy. “I would walk through with other girls, stop at the tables and there would always be a lot of ladies up there having lunch and they would admire you and smile. And you would say, ‘This sells for $17.95 in the Teen World department.’ I did it for a couple of years.”
But what Sister Dorothy and many Baltimoreans remember best about Hochschild’s was the annual Thanksgiving Toytown Parade— a jumble of balloons including Mickey Mouse, Little Bunny Cotton Tail and a huge inflated dragon, marching bands, reindeer and, of course, Santa Claus. Beginning near the Baltimore Museum of Art, the parade wound its way downtown, signaling the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and drawing shoppers to Hochschild’s other major Christmas attraction, the street-level display windows, which were decorated with a different Christmas-related theme each season. What didn’t change from year to year, however, was the Laughing Santa Claus. Jovial to some, but terrifying to others, the giant mechanized Santa would lean forward in his chair, booming “Ho! Ho! Ho!” through speakers to shoppers on Howard Street.
In the following years, Hochschild’s would be known for a series of firsts. In 1947, with the opening of Hochschild’s Edmondson Village, it became the first downtown department store to expand into the suburbs. (The following year it opened a second suburban branch, its sleek Hochschild, Kohn Belvedere store, now a mixed-use retail complex at York Road and Belvedere Avenue.)
In 1960, Hochschild’s served 120 Morgan State student demonstrators in the downtown store restaurant, becoming the first of Baltimore’s department stores to integrate and eventually change their strict policies of not allowing African-Americans to either try on or return clothing.
In 1966, Hochschild’s, which had remained in the hands of its founders’ families, became the first acquisition of Warren Buffett’s Buffett Partnership Ltd. And in 1977, it became the first of Baltimore’s department stores to close its downtown store (the chain had expanded to include at least eight other locations, including Security Square, Columbia, Eastpoint, Harundale and Kenilworth).
The grand, six-story building at Lexington and Howard streets burned in a 10-alarm fire in 1983, the same year the Hochschild, Kohn & Co. chain went out of business, closing all of its branches. In 1985, Hutzler’s erected its glitzy new downtown “Palace” store on the former Hochschild’s site, but closed it a few years later as that venerable local department store chain also faced closure. It has since been converted to a multi-use building including offices and several storefronts, none that boast a Laughing Santa.