Looking at the Old Town Mall in Baltimore today, you’d have no idea it was one of Baltimore’s most important and historic commercial districts. Nearly all of the stores are vacant and dilapidated, and it has the atmosphere of a place that is entirely forgotten. Located roughly in the center of it is the former Kaufman’s Department Store, which closed in 1997. Currently Kaufman’s is the home of the Nevermore Haunt, who bought it in 2014 and have been using it as a haunted house attraction that centers on the city of Baltimore’s dark history.
Isaac Benesch, a furniture salesman who would construct the building that later became Kaufman’s, moved his business to Gay Street in the 1860s. Benesch was an immigrant from Bohemia and opened his first store at 17. He purchased neighboring rowhomes on Gay Street as his businesses expanded and in 1882 he demolished the row homes and built a four story building which would become one of Baltimore’s most prominent department stores. By the late 1890s it was known as the Great House of Isaac Benesch and Sons, and in addition to furniture, it sold clothing, silverware, jewelry, hats, and more. By the 1960s, the Great House’s heyday had ended, and the building was leased out in 1963 and soon became Kaufman’s Department Store.
Old Town had become one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city as a result of financial divestment and white flight to the suburbs in the 1940s. Shops struggled the Baltimore Riot of 1968, which followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr., caused $12 million in property damage.
Following the riots, the city planned to revitalize the area with a $1.7 million project to turn the Gay Street corridor into the first inner-city pedestrian mall, known as the Old Town Mall. Nothing was done to address poverty and a lack of jobs in the area, however. While the mall was considered a model for future urban planning, it was still described as “halfway there” by the Baltimore Sun in 1976.
During the 1980s the area around Old Town Mall continued its descent as poverty and drugs ravaged the area. By the 1990s many stores were abandoned and Gay Street had a sense of isolation and desolation that led many shop owners to question whether the pedestrian mall plan was a mistake. Gerald Jeffein, the owner of Kaufman’s, never gave up hope. When he passed away from cancer on March 25, 1997, his obituary fondly described him as the “Don Quixote of Old Town”. One day prior to his death, Jeffein had quietly filed for bankruptcy.
As of 2021 the few businesses remaining in Old Town Mall – including a pawnshop, a tailor, and a barbershop – continue their plea to the mayor for help. In December 2021 it was reported a planned development “could break ground next year”, but with no further news on the subject it seems a safe bet that it has not.
Kaufman’s Department Store, however, is no longer abandoned after it was purchased by Joe Hudson in 2014 to use as the location of the Nevermore Haunt. Currently the website of the Nevermore Haunt is taking reservations for their Fall 2022 season. While I haven’t had the chance to visit it personally the online reviews are generally positive and they won a “Fright of the Year” award in 2021 from FrightTour.com. The also have food and beer vendors serving patrons, and with 7 years under their belt, it’s safe to say the idea has been a success. It certainly hasn’t fixed the area’s problems, but that’s too much to ask of any single business. Having said that, it has provided some much-needed repairs to the Kaufman’s building and served as an example that with hard work and some inspiration, perhaps businesses can thrive there after all.
Matthew Christopher MD Baltimore Sep 08, 2022 Abandoned Places History Things To Remember