En­tre­pre­neur scares up busi­ness in Old­town

Va­cant store now serves as a Hal­loween at­trac­tion

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Jac­ques Kelly jac­ques.kelly@balt­sun.com

Joe Hud­son went look­ing for the right build­ing in Bal­ti­more to cre­ate a Hal­loween haunted house ex­pe­ri­ence.

He wound up on North Gay Street at a his­toric struc­ture whose fa­cade reads: “The Great House of Isaac Be­nesch.”

He and his crew of 50 ac­tors and other work­ers have trans­formed the va­cant Old­town de­part­ment store into a sea­sonal en­ter­tain­ment venue that mixes a fun­house ex­pe­ri­ence with a dose of Bal­ti­more his­tory and a dol­lop of the­atri­cal ter­ror.

The Nev­er­more Haunt opened three week­ends ago. It’s open Thurs­day through Sun­day evenings and, of course, on Hal­loween night. Af­ter that, it closes for the year.

“I’ve been fill­ing the place,” Hud­son said. “We’ve had 1,000 per­sons through so far, with two more week­ends be­fore Hal­loween.”

There’s no es­cap­ing that the 500 block of N. Gay St., also called the Old­town Mall, is va­cant and de­press­ing. One of the oldest shop­ping ar­eas in Bal­ti­more, it was ex­ten­sively re­built to crit­i­cal ac­claim af­ter the 1968 ri­ots.

Then-mayor Wil­liam Don­ald Schae­fer hailed its re­birth in 1975 when it be­came a pedes­trian mall fes­tooned with planters and py­lons. Acres of pub­lic park­ing were added around the old Be­lair Mar­ket.

This bold ex­per­i­ment in city plan­ning failed. Sev­eral years ago, the city de­mol­ished the mar­ket build­ings af­ter store upon store closed.

The space where The Nev­er­more Haunt is op­er­at­ing was most re­cently Kauf­man’s, a cloth­ing store.

His­tor­i­cally it was the Isaac Be­nesch store. Af­ter he died in 1910, his de­scen­dants — he had seven chil­dren — went on to op­er­ate their own busi­ness, of­ten sell­ing fur­ni­ture. A1905 ad in The Bal­ti­more Sun boasts of “Fur­ni­ture for the mil­lions” and notes “no class dis­tinc­tion. We are friends of all the peo­ple.”

Gay Street is a dif­fer­ent thor­ough­fare to­day from the era when the No. 15 street­car ran along­side its curbs. In 1900, The Bal­ti­more Sun de­scribed the Be­nesch store’s “an­nual fall open­ing” with a ladies suit and cloak de­part­ment and its “large force of tai­lors and de­sign­ers.”

Hud­son, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, paid $225,000 for the four-story de­part­ment store in 2014. He in­vested an­other $300,000 in a sprin­kler sys­tem, added to the elec­tri­cal ser­vice and cre­ated the haunted house labyrinth on the first floor.

“The build­ing had great bones and high ceil­ings,” he said.

He went into the haunted-house en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness when he was an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park. Joe Hud­son is part of a team that has trans­formed the first floor of the old Be­nesch store at Old­town Mall into The Nev­er­more Haunt, a Bal­ti­more-themed Hal­loween ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I wanted this place to have Bal­ti­more con­nec­tions. We have a Bal­ti­more Fire, a brick-lined sewer, a rat, a pier and ship, and a Fells Point-like street scene with gaslights,” he said as a thun­der ma­chine boomed ev­ery 20 sec­onds.

The street is home to sev­eral aban­doned com­mer­cial struc­tures. While there is a sur­viv­ing pawn­shop, a bar­ber, a beauty sup­ply busi­ness and sev­eral other small busi­nesses, many of the 19th-cen­tury build­ings to­gether ap­pear a ghost town.

“I’d love to see some more busi­nesses here,” Hud­son said. “We talked about bring­ing in food trucks, but I think it would be bet­ter busi­ness.”

“We’ve got plenty of free park­ing,” he said, ges­tur­ing to the Mott Street park­ing lot. On a week­day, the ex­pan­sive lot was empty.

Hud­son ac­knowl­edges the Old­town Mall and Gay Street are some­thing of an ur­ban Twi­light Zone, even though down­town of­fice build­ings are nearby and Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal is not far away.

“When peo­ple ask us where we are, I tell them we run a shut­tle bus from Fells Point,” he said. “They like that.” if some­one opened a food

BARBARA HAD­DOCK TAY­LOR/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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