Once a bustling department store complex on North Gay Street, the Great House of Isaac Benesch and Sons has been vacant for over a decade as the Old Town Mall waits on the progress of long stalled revitalization efforts. Isaac Benesch started his business shortly after the Civil War with a furniture store operating out of a single rowhouse. In the 1880s, as dry goods dealers like Hutzler's built their “grand emporiums” on the west side, Benesch acquired nearby rowhouses and began to rebuild them into a department store.
By 1911, his business included three large 4-story buildings, dominating the 500 block of N. Gay Street. The store at 549-557 Old Town Mall, an Italianate brick building with large windows, still features an elegant copper sign band across the facade, proclaiming the “Great House,” perhaps added by Philadelphia architect Louis Levi in 1914. Next door at 565-571 North Gay Street is a four story, two bay Renaissance Revival building, of brick with terra cotta ornamentation designed by architect Charles E. Cassell and built in 1904 by William H. Porter. Cassell had a long list of major projects in Baltimore, including the grand Stewart’s Department Store at Howard and Lexington Streets, built in 1900. Benesch’s likely hoped Cassell could bring the same architectural magnificence to his work on the east side. More buildings went up in the 1920s with a warehouse at 600 Aisquith Street by the J.L. Robinson Construction Company, virtually unchanged from its 1925 construction.
Unlike those westside department stores, however, Isaac Benesch established an early reputation for serving all customers—black and white. One 1898 account from the Afro-American newspaper stated, “Isaac Benesch & Sons very much appreciate the large volume of colored trade which they have, coming from all parts of the city.” In 1926, when few department stores hired African Americans as salesmen, Benesch hired Josh Mitchell to sell automobile tires—and featured him in advertisements. In the 1940s, the Afro-American gave Benesch an “orchid” for “serving all alike.”
In the 1970s, several of the original buildings were demolished as the block was redeveloped for the pedestrian-only “Old Town Mall.” The Great House had closed a few years earlier, in the early 1960s, and was run as Kaufman’s Department Store until 1997.