Fifty years ago, a crowd of 1,000 onlookers gathered at the corner of Lexington and Charles streets on a chilly January afternoon. A high school band played “Baltimore, Our Baltimore,” Mayor J. Harold Grady gave a signal and a 100-foot-high crane launched its wrecking ball into the side of what once was O’Neill & Co. It was 1961: the beginning of the downtown clearance for Charles Center and the end of one of Baltimore’s toniest department stores.
O’Neill’s had already been closed for business for seven years when its four adjoining buildings were razed, but it had served Baltimore’s high-end shoppers for 72 years prior to that. The Barneys of its day, O’Neill’s was known as “The Store of Specialty Shops,” a place where customers could buy Irish linens and hats, Persian lamb fur coats or hand-knit baby leggings. (In a charitable move, the store also carried habits for Catholic sisters in a department dedicated to religious institutions.) At O’Neill’s, a sorority of “Misses”— Miss Annie, Miss Mary, Miss Katie—knew customers by name. And each morning until his death in 1919, proprietor Thomas O’Neill, a giant of a man with flaming red hair and mustache, would greet customers at the store’s front door dressed in striped trousers and a long frock coat.
The business began in 1882, when O’Neill, a 32-year-old native of County Cavan, Ireland, and his partner Robert Pope opened a linen and dry goods shop on the southwest corner of Charles and Lexington. Soon after, O’Neill bought out Pope and launched O’Neill & Co., colloquially known as O’Neill’s. The business expanded into four separate buildings, including the 1900 six-story, Renaissance-styled building of Indian limestone designed by Baldwin and Pennington, the architects responsible for the Maryland Club and the Maryland State House annex. The building was restrained and discreet, and looked more like an elegant townhouse than a department store. It featured 35,000 square feet of interior space, much of it finished in quartered oak, two Otis elevators, “a handsome drinking fountain [on each floor]… a convenience always appreciated by busy shoppers,” The Sun noted— and even a “dark room” for displaying luxury fabrics used for formalwear in “evening light.”
From the start, O’Neill’s had a reputation for high quality and was interested in attracting only the city’s wealthiest shoppers. A display ad from an 1897 edition of The Sun touts both the store’s goods and its philosophy of buying and selling. “While the tendency of houses in our line is towards cheapness, we are constantly raising the standard of quality higher and higher,” ran one statement interspersed between advertisements for “best broadcloth,” “Fancy Silks for Street, Evening and Dinner dresses in light and subdued grounds ($1, $1.25, $1.50 and $2),” French dress patterns and Nottingham lace curtains ($1.25). “Goods of doubtful quality never find a place in our store, so that there can be no competition in cost, where there is no comparison in quality,” ran another.
With the high prices came a high level of service. The ladies in O’Neill’s hosiery department would mend customers’ silk stockings. At the glove counter, a clerk would sprinkle talcum powder in gloves before stretching them and allowing a customer to try them on. Towson resident Jean Dodd remembers when her mother, Helen Gilmore, worked at O’Neill’s cosmetics counter during the 1930s and ’40s, “back when you had your cosmetics prepared for you,” Dodd says. O’Neill’s sent Gilmore to New York to study with Elizabeth Arden. When Gilmore returned to the cosmetics department, she kept records of her customers’ preferences so she could blend their powder or rouge to order (although clerks were expected to know a customer’s name and address from memory). She was also responsible for selling perfume, which was sold in drams and poured from one large flagon into a small container the customer would take home with her.
The women who worked at O’Neill’s “weren’t just salespeople,” explains Dodd. They were professionals, from their black or navy blue suits with white collars or cuffs to the level of personal service they offered.
If O’Neill’s has faded from memory, the result of its limited clientele and short life compared to Baltimore’s other historic home-grown department stores, the profits of the business have left their legacy. It was said that Thomas O’Neill “cared about three things: his business, his family and the church.” When he died, he left most of his money to various Catholic organizations (he bequeathed funds to establish the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and Good Samaritan Hospital), but left his store to his employees, who were offered stock as long as they remained employed there. Eventually, the store was bought out and became a part of Allied Stores Corp., which closed the business in 1954, telling The Sun that the ritual of negotiating leases with the different landlords who owned the four buildings that made up O’Neill’s had become too difficult.
The store closed its doors on Dec. 27, 1954, the painted O’Neill’s name, with its curve of “O” and curl of “N” remaining visible on the side of the 1900 building until the wrecking ball came in 1961.