After 140 years of operation, the Woman’s Industrial Exchange of Baltimore City is no more.
The nonprofit known for tomato aspic, deviled eggs and Golden Girl waitresses announced today that its board has ceased operations and turned its landmark N. Charles Street building and assets over to another local group dedicated to helping women, Marian House.
The action marks the end of an organization that was founded in 1880 and incorporated in 1882 to help women earn income at a time when jobs for women outside the home were scarce.
It means a new chapter for a 205-year-old building known to Baltimoreans for its first-floor restaurant and gift shop that provided jobs for generations of women while offering just the right spot to buy last-minute baby gifts.
And it’s a new challenge for Marian House, a 37-year-old organization dedicated to assisting women in transition, whose motto is: “Women Moving from Dependence to Independence.”
Jenny Hope, chair of the board of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange of Baltimore City, said its decision to cease operations at 333 N. Charles St. is “a bittersweet moment in our extensive history.” At the same time, she said, “we are thrilled to have the building put into the hands of a remarkable organization that is truly helping women in Baltimore today.”
Katie Allston, executive director of Marian House, said the transaction gives Marian House a new “campus” to carry out its mission of helping women, and its first location in Baltimore’s central business district.
Founded in 1982, Marian House describes itself as a “holistic, healing community” for homeless women and their children in need of housing and rehabilitative services. Based at 949 Gorsuch Ave., it helps women who have suffered from trauma, physical and sexual abuse, addiction and other challenges by providing temporary living quarters and other tools that help them build stable and independent lives.
“We are honored by this generous offer and will preserve and protect the building and the long history of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange,” she said.
The Woman’s Industrial Exchange of Baltimore City was one of the last remaining chapters of a national federation of exchanges that were created in the 1880s to give women the opportunity to earn income by selling art and other handcrafted items to the general public.
With the dissolution of the Baltimore board, Hope said, there are now fewer than 10 woman’s exchanges around the country. Besides the Baltimore board, she said, two other divisions have ceased operations this year.
The N. Charles Street property that changed hands is a five-story corner building that contains offices and retail space at street level and seven apartments on the upper floors. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was constructed in 1815 as a private residence and later expanded to become a boarding house. The Exchange acquired it and moved there in 1899, after occupying several previous downtown locations.
For most of its time at N. Charles and E. Pleasant streets, the Exchange used the building to house a gift shop featuring craft items in the front and an unpretentious restaurant in the back that was known for its comfort-food menu and friendly waitresses who kept working long past the average retirement age.
The restaurant was a favorite spot for many people who worked or shopped downtown, the ideal place for employers to take new hires out to lunch for their first day on the job. The Sun and Evening Sun would run occasional photos and stories about one of the waitresses reaching a milestone birthday.
In 1999, the Exchange closed its own restaurant but continued to host a succession of restaurants run by others, including The Woman’s Industrial Exchange Kitchen; Sofi’s Crepes and Jack and Zach’s. The building was also the location for many years of Nelson Coleman Jewelers, a Baltimore business run by the same family since 1873.
Current tenants include Sporty Dog Creations, a gourmet hot dog commissary in the restaurant space, and a mini-department store in the gift shop space that has been closed in recent weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2017, the Woman’s Industrial Exchange announced that it was seeking ideas for repurposing the building’s commercial spaces and would be open to working with partners or affiliates, but it didn’t get an acceptable expression of interest at that time.
According to its website at the time, the Exchange described itself as “Maryland’s oldest, longest continually operating 501c(3) dedicated to improving the lives of regional women.”
Late last year, with no other offers on the table, the Exchange board approached Marian House about taking over its building. Allston said the offer took her by surprise–“I don’t think anybody expects a call like this”–and triggered several months of “due diligence” activity on the part of Marian House, leading to the board’s acceptance of the idea and the real estate transfer that will be marked with an event at the building today.
Hope works full time as the Director of Neighborhood Programs for Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., and chaired the board of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange in a voluntary capacity. Her family’s connection to the Exchange dates back to 1936, when her great grandmother and namesake, Jenny Davis, led the organization. Two other female family members have served on the board as well. She has been involved on and off since 2003.
Hope said she has been familiar with the Marian House for years, dating back to when she was executive director of Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity and worked in Better Waverly, where Marian House was a neighborhood partner. At that time, she said, some women from Marian House became Habitat for Humanity home owners, and the two organizations have stayed in touch ever since and gotten to know more about how much they have in common.
Although the two groups haven’t worked together directly, Hope said, the Exchange’s four-member board decided that Marian House is “the perfect organization” to carry on the legacy of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange and make the best use of its N. Charles Street property, and voted unanimously to make an offer.
“This building was constructed in 1815, and the board wanted to put it in the hands of a group that could really take care of it and move forward,” she said.
“Marian House is a well-resourced organization. Their space is wonderful and welcoming. They’re so open and community-minded. They’re a great organization and they take really good care of their buildings…It’s the best use for the spaces that the [N. Charles Street] building has.”
The two parties declined to disclose the terms of the transaction. Hope said the Woman’s Industrial Exchange had an endowment of about $38,000 that it transferred to Marian House because the Exchange will no longer exist and the endowment had restrictions that stipulate the money go to a women’s group. She said certain publications and other archival materials from the Exchange will be given to the Maryland Historical Society.
Hope added that the Exchange’s decision to cease operations is not related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it was more a sign of changing times.
At the time, she said, there weren’t many organizations set up to teach women job skills and help them sell their wares. Today, she said, there are many organizations that serve that purpose, and that means there is less need for an organization such as the Woman’s Industrial Exchange.
“What I am excited about is that we do have a great creative class in Baltimore,” she said. “There are lots of outlets for artists, like Found Studio, the shop that’s on Harford Road in the Red Canoe [Café], and Open Works and Made in Baltimore and Made in Maryland and Etsy. There are so many ways that artists are able to get the word out and have customers.”
By contrast, she said, “I think that …the Exchange has run its course. I just felt that…if the building is wholly-owned by a nonprofit use, it would be better for the building and better for the women of Marian House.”
Launched as a joint project of the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Marian House has served more than 2,600 women over the past 37 years.
Expanding from its original headquarters on Gorsuch Avenue, the organization operates a transitional housing program in Better Waverly; Serenity Place, a 19 apartments for low-income residents on property that was formerly St. Bernard’s Catholic Elementary School on Gorsuch Avenue; and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building at Independence Place, a 22-unit apartment building inside the former Blessed Sacrament School in Baltimore’s Pen Lucy neighborhood, among other properties.
At any given time, Allston said, it provides housing for up to 42 single women, about 90 female-headed households, and 15 to 20 families of various sizes. It has about 38 staffers.
Allston said the N. Charles Street property will give Marian House an opportunity to grow in new ways. Asked exactly what Marian House will do with the property, she said its board does not yet have a specific plan, but she did say it will not be a continuation of what Marian House does elsewhere.
“We will not be opening a shelter or transitional housing program in that space,”” she said. “That is absolutely not a thought at all.”
Allston said Marian House intends to involve the business community, city officials and other interested individuals in a planning process to help its directors decide how to move forward.
As part of the planning effort, Marian House has set aside part of its website to allow interested members of the public to submit suggestions, at marianhouse.org/wie.
Allston said she believes the property has strong potential because it’s in a prominent location, well served by public transportation and close to other organizations that help women.
“There’s lots of opportunity in that area, and opportunity for partnership,” she said. “It’s exciting for us to have…a campus that is more centrally located.”
She said Marian House will honor the leases in place, including the seven market-rate apartments created about 20 years ago, and retain the current property manager. She said the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. has been helping out in assessing the condition of the building and that its name likely won’t change, except that exterior letters that read Women’s Exchange may be altered and supplemented so they read Marian House at the Exchange.
“We’re just really excited to have the building, to be in that location, and our plan, honestly is to engage the community–the businesses in the area, city officials, our donors– to try to come up with an idea,” she said. “We’ve had some internal conversations about it, but honestly the world is changing as we speak around us. So I think right now, my vision is that we go through a visioning process.”
Finding the right use for use for the restaurant space may well require working with others, Allston said.
“It might not be that Marian House alone opens up some service or restaurant or something,” she said. “It might be a partnership. We’re certainly not in the restaurant industry or the lunch counter industry or the retail industry right now, so that’s where we need to take some time and talk to the community and see how we might be able to use the space to further our mission… It is a growth moment for us for sure.”
At the same time, she said, there is synergy between the missions of Marian House and the Woman’s Industrial Exchange.
“Marian House is all about taking women who need to be lifted out of poverty, who need to be helped to return back to work and rehabilitated in whatever way they might need to be to be able to get back into the community and support their families,” Allston said. “That’s very much where the synergy is.”
Hope said she intends to remain involved with the building in some capacity. For now, she said, she’s confident the Exchange has made the right decision.
“It’s a little bittersweet because the organization is 140 years old,” she said. “But I don’t feel in any way, shape or form that it’s not the right time and the right move.”