The Chesapeake Cadillac Company

Fragments of History at the 25th Street Safeway: Part 1

As you drive up Charles Street through Old Goucher, you might notice some odd details on the facade of the neighborhood Safeway. A carved sentinel eagle keeps watch, and the word “CADILLAC” is etched onto a stone arch over the market’s main entrance.

These curiosities were preserved from what once occupied this site. In the early years of the Great Depression, the Chesapeake Cadillac Company constructed an Art Deco showroom building at 2400 N Charles Street. Art Deco is a design movement popularized in the 1920s, its architecture characterized by elegant, streamlined surfaces and patterns. This uniform style evokes the man-made, and reflects a faith in modern technology and machinery.

The story goes that the showroom’s site was selected by the famous World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Before winning 26 aerial combat duels in Europe and earning a Medal of Honor, Rickenbacker had already established himself in the States as a prodigious racecar driver and automobile designer. When Rickenbacker returned home as a war hero, he had boundless access to entrepreneurial ventures and employment. In the late ‘20s, as a general manager of sales for General Motors’ Cadillac division, Rickenbacker went up in a plane to scout sites that would “tap Baltimore’s affluent neighborhoods.” As he approached the intersection of Charles Street and University Parkway, he said “you want to be as close to this area as possible.”

Chesapeake Cadillac, which counted Frank Robinson, Glenn L. Martin, Dorothy Lamour, and T. Rowe Price among its clients, remained on Charles Street until 1995. This made it one of the last dealerships in Baltimore to haul out to the suburbs of Baltimore County. This exodus of businesses from the city had begun in the mid-20th century, in response to a strong, new customer base of white families who had moved en masse to the suburbs. The company’s plans to move to Cockeysville’s car dealership corridor were in the works before Safeway proposed building there in 1994—it was known that suburban locations were more lucrative. The company exists today in Cockeysville as Frankel & Chesapeake Cadillac.

When Safeway proposed building a store here in 1994, public opinion was split. Advocates for historical preservation, including Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, vice president of Baltimore Heritage at the time, argued that a supermarket and its parking lot would break up the traditional streetscape, worsen traffic, and waste architecturally significant buildings. Safeway’s arrival “pulled the rug out from under” a local development team’s plans to bring a supermarket to a location just blocks away.

However, most residents welcomed the idea of a Safeway for its convenience and low prices. At the time Old Goucher did not have a full-service supermarket, and weekly shopping trips at the small, family-owned Crown Market were too expensive for most. The Design Advisory Panel, responsible for maintaining a high standard of architecture and urban design in the city, rejected Safeway’s first two design proposals—but Safeway satisfied the Panel after presenting the design incorporating elements from the showroom, and obtained approval to build soon after. Buildings in the way, including the showroom, were demolished, and the store was completed in 1997. A Sun article from 1998 lauded the project as a community asset, adding, “it’s ironic that many activists fought the store, fearing it would bring new problems.”

When Safeway was awarded the building contract, some criticized this piecemeal approach to historical preservation as lazy. The architectural historian Phoebe Stanton argued that “if you want to preserve the building, preserve the building. I don’t approve of this business of breaking dishes up and saving three little chips.” However, decades removed from this heated debate, it is clear that historical preservation—even on the smallest scale—provides us a window to the past.

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2401 N. Charles Street