One of the stories about artist Betty Cooke that came out of the Walters Art Museum’s exhibit on her this year is an account about the professional relationship she had with the legendary developer James Rouse.
A display in the exhibit, “Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line,” shows pieces of jewelry that Rouse asked Cooke to create for his wife, Patty, to mark various birthdays and anniversaries. Rouse commissioned the gifts over a span of 20 years, and they have numbers to signify each occasion. It’s a remarkable record of a longstanding relationship between artist and patron, merchant and customer.
But that’s not the only connection between Cooke, 97, and Rouse, who passed away in 1996. They first met when she had a shop and showroom on Tyson Street in the 1950s and he was a customer. Cooke and her late husband and business partner, the artist William Steinmetz, have been tenants at two Rouse Company developments, Harborplace and The Village of Cross Keys. Her retail business, The Store Ltd., is still at Cross Keys, 5100 Falls Road, in the same spot where it opened in 1965.
Besides jewelry, Cooke designed posters and Christmas cards for Rouse, andirons for his fireplace, and graphics for some of his developments, including the logo for Waterside in Norfolk, Virginia. Using silver and bronze, she created a map of Baltimore for him, and he hung it in his office. She advised him on at least one key hire, Edwin “Ned” Daniels Jr., who became known as the Rouse Company’s “Director of Good Taste.” Over the years, she and Rouse became good friends.
“Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line,” showing the artist’s work over seven decades, runs through January 2 at the Walters, 600 North Charles Street. Cooke spoke about her friendship and professional relationship with Rouse during an interview conducted in person at The Village of Cross Keys. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: How did you get to know Jim Rouse?
Betty Cooke: He used to come into my little Tyson Street [shop].
BFB: Before the Rouse Company? When he was in the mortgage banking business in the 1950s and had an office on…
BC: Saratoga Street. I did Christmas cards for him, when it was the Moss-Rouse Company. He liked what I did. I did posters. One of the good things I did [for him]: he wanted a map of the city of Baltimore. I used bronze and silver and made a map – North Avenue, Charles Street.
BFB: In 1965, you moved to one of the Rouse Company’s development projects, The Village of Cross Keys, and opened The Store Ltd. You could have moved your jewelry business to Charles Street, where the carriage trade was still relatively strong. Yet you took a leap and relocated to a new development in a different part of the city. Why did you move to Cross Keys?
BC: Because I knew whatever Jim did was — I think I would do everything that he developed. At the time, he was developing Columbia. To me that was a wonderful thing because of the use of the land. The whole concept of a new city was wonderful, and the Village of Cross Keys was a prototype for Columbia. So we were in on the beginning of it and saw this beautiful thing evolve.
BFB: You also had a store at Harborplace, which opened in 1980. You were one of the original merchants in the Pratt Street Pavilion. How long were you there?
BC: A couple of years. It was called ‘It’s American.’ Everything we sold was American. I had space for my jewelry but we had a lot of antiques, quilts.
BFB: Were those your only retail locations?
BC: We had one in Georgetown, for another few years. It was called The Store Ltd., on Wisconsin Avenue.
BFB: Also in the 1980s?
BC: Um hum. But we stopped that because we took a partner in and we didn’t like the partner, so we got out of it.
BFB: Was that a Rouse Company development?
BFB: Did you know Harborplace architect Ben Thompson and his wife, the designer and urbanist Jane Thompson? In 1953 Ben Thompson opened one of the first “lifestyle” stores, Design Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Jane Thompson became a partner in the 1960s. He went on to design Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston for the Rouse Company, and then Harborplace.
BC: Sure, I knew them. They loved our store and they loved my work. In fact, I had some jewelry in their store one time.
BFB: You and your husband were like them in certain respects.
BC: We were on the same road. We carried Marimekko [prints and clothing] for them.
BFB: Did they try to get you to open a store at Faneuil Hall?
BC: Yes they did. We had quite a tour. We went up a couple of times. We went with Jim. We met all the merchants and they wanted us to go but we didn’t. We didn’t want to do all that.
BFB: You didn’t want to go too far from home?
BC: Not because of that. You end up with a big company. It would have been nice to have somebody handle me, but I wasn’t going to handle all these things [for others]. We were asked a couple of times to have several stores. There was one in Denver that wanted us and then there was somebody in Canada that wanted us to open up.
BFB: When did you become a brand?
BC: I don’t know. That’s a label that newspapers and magazines give. It’s all right. Everybody understands what it is. But certainly, back in the 50s, I didn’t think I wanted to be a brand. I didn’t even know what it was.
BFB: It’s not hard to see why the Rouse Company and others wanted you as a tenant and business partner. You’re an artist, but you have an entrepreneurial spirit.
BC: I must have…I just do what I do.
BFB: The Walters exhibit has a section about Jim Rouse, who passed away in 1996, and 20 years’ worth of gifts he asked you to create for his second wife Patty, who died in 2012. Did he surprise her with those gifts? Did Patty Rouse have any say in what you created for her?
BC: No, except that she might say—I’m just making this up, ‘I’d like a necklace sometime.’ That’s about all I could get from them.
BFB: The exhibit states that the jewelry was created at his request for birthdays and anniversaries.
BC: They all had numbers. Every gift from him had a number. When the birthday was 56, we had a five and a six.
BFB: Did you create anything for Rouse and his first wife, Libby?
BC: Yes, I did things for their house. I did a table. Andirons. A lot of things.
BFB: It’s illuminating to see 20 years of designs for one patron. It’s impressive that Patty Rouse’s heirs kept her collection together and loaned it for your exhibition.
BC: They want to keep it as a group. They could have sold it or given it all away. But so far, they’re keeping it.
BFB: Were there any other devoted customers like Jim Rouse?
BC: Yes. And they still are. Some are in the show. [The late ski- and tennis racket-designer] Howard Head was a good client. I have a lot of others.
BFB: Who did Howard Head buy for?
BC: A wife and daughter.
BFB: Did you make a tennis racket out of jewels?
BC: I made a symbol. Not jewels. It was a symbol of a tennis racket and a ball. You wouldn’t even know it, but it is. And they had some pins made and that kind of thing.
BFB: You’ve been at Cross Keys for 56 years, going on 57. A number of merchants have moved out to Baltimore County. Why have you stayed at Cross Keys?
BC: Because we happen to have respect for this whole place. And we have a certain clientele…Why not stay here? We have all this going on…We like it here.
BFB: Some retailers left because they didn’t like the previous landlord, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation. Are you encouraged that a new owner of Cross Keys’ commercial assets, Caves Valley Partners, is taking steps to bring back some of the vitality it had when Rouse was alive and his company owned it?
BC: I do. I think they really care about it. It was falling apart.
BFB: Have you met Arsh Mirmiran of Caves Valley Partners, the developer who’s taking the lead on revitalizing Cross Keys?
BC: I’ve met him. I have all the Rouse Company advertising [for Cross Keys]. All the clippings for Cross Keys. All the nice graphics. I told him.
BFB: Is there anything you could contribute to help Arsh Mirmiran revitalize Cross Keys and carry on the Rouse legacy?
BC: I should have done a sculpture out here.
BFB: There’s still time.
BC: I have to see what his tastes are.
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