For more than 85 years, the large sign atop the Stieff Silver Building has spelled out the name of a company once synonymous with Baltimore. The movement of the Stieff Company from downtown to the bucolic neighborhood of Hampden mirrored the changes that Baltimore and many other cities experienced during the twentieth century. The Kirk-Stieff Company was the oldest silversmith firm in the country when the factory closed its doors in 1999, marking the end of a tradition that had flourished in Baltimore since the early nineteenth century.
Entrepreneur Charles Clinton Stieff founded the company in 1892 at 110 W. Fayette Street. After several name changes, the Stieff Company became a major player in the silver manufacturing business. In 1894, Stieff opened a showroom at 17 N. Liberty Street near the Howard Street shopping district, which turned Stieff into a familiar name for generations of Baltimoreans.
Charles C. Stieff’s son Gideon took over in 1914 around the same time automobiles were changing the pace of city life. A few years later, a trip to Druid Hill Park would forever change the face of Stieff Silver. Gideon and his future wife Claire were enjoying an outing at the park when she pointed out a plot of land that she thought would suit the company’s plans for a new factory. They were looking at the mill village of Hampden, just across the Jones Falls from the park. Although the city annexed this community in 1888, it still remained relatively isolated well into the twentieth century. This sylvan streetcar suburb attracted the Stieffs, who marketed the new building’s “out-of-the-congested district” location with unlimited parking to appeal to shoppers in the mid-twentieth century.
The Stieff Company purchased the land from Mount Vernon Mill in 1922 and broke ground on the project in 1924. Production began at the Hampden location in 1925 and was so successful, the company decided to double the size of the factory in 1929. They might have reconsidered the addition had they been able to predict the Great Depression, but the company managed to hang on during the difficult economic times of the 1930s. A degree of stability was established in 1939 when Stieff signed a contract to reproduce silver for Colonial Williamsburg.
During World War II, when the federal government took control of the nation’s silver supply, the company made surgical equipment and aluminum ice trays to remain solvent. They began working with pewter in the 1950s, which quickly became the majority of their business. Demand for silver and pewter was high in the postwar period when the company opened a retail store on the 200 block of N. Howard Street and, in 1970, built a large addition to the Hampden factory. They purchased S. Kirk and Son, another Baltimore silversmith firm that had been in the business since 1815, and assumed the name Kirk-Stieff in 1979.
The company, like many other industries in Baltimore and across the U.S., faced serious challenges in the 1980s and 1990s. The Howard Street showroom closed in 1981, adding yet another vacant storefront to the once bustling commercial center. The Kirk-Stieff Company ceased operations in January 1999. Local developers Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse bought the building for $1.5 million in 2000. After investing $13.2 million to renovate the interior into office space, several nonprofit groups moved to the Wyman Park Drive location in 2002. Although its occupants have changed, the large electric sign atop the Stieff Silver Building remains an icon for many Baltimoreans.