Do a Deeper Dive into These Delightful Displays!
Guided by an adroit storyteller with an accomplished historical bent, we are pleased to present Linda Rabben’s research about some of our most iconic products and store displays. We hope you will enjoy – and share – this expanding vintage tour!
Linda Rabben is an author, anthropologist and human rights activist. She has worked for nongovernmental organizations as a writer, researcher and public speaker. Since 2015 she has been an associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.
Linda has published 10 nonfiction books and has given talks about human rights issues to more than 80 groups in the US and other countries.
In 2021 Linda and her husband moved to Baltimore, where she enjoys walking in her neighborhood, meeting her neighbors and shopping at Second Chance. She is now doing research on the social history of stained-glass windows in Baltimore homes, churches and institutions…and much more.
A Sweet Relic
The giant yellow steel lower-case letter “r” standing alone at Second Chance was part of one of Baltimore’s best-known landmarks for 70 years. The Domino Sugars sign where it used to reside overlooks the Inner Harbor atop the 100-year-old American Sugar Refining Company factory, the second-largest sugar refinery in the United States.
The 120-foot by 70-foot neon sign was erected in 1951 and lasted until 2021. The company replaced it with an LED-illuminated sign designed by the Gable Company of Curtis Bay. WBAL-TV reported that crews moved the letters through the factory one by one and lifted them with a pulley instead of using a helicopter or crane.
On July 4, 2021, the new sign was switched on after a six-month installation process. The sign cost $75,000 (about $804,000 in current dollars) in 1951; its replacement cost almost $2 million.
The company donated parts of the old sign to Second Chance and the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The upper-case D was so weather-beaten, however, that it could not be salvaged. The company had medallions made from pieces of the letter and gave them to 500 employees. More than 350 additional medallions were donated to the Museum of Industry, which sold all of them to sentimental collectors in a few hours.
Now, you can visit the “U” as well!
For Art Deco Aficionados
Among the large, impressive relics at Second Chance are five polychrome terra cotta friezes, each about 11 feet long and 19 inches high. Elaborately decorated with zigzag and floral motifs in glossy blue, green, brown, tan and black glazes, they look as if they were made yesterday.
Their excellent condition is attributable to the fact that they were mounted inside the Philadelphia Civic Center, above the auditorium portals, and not exposed to the weather. Designed by Philip H. Johnson and built c. 1930 in high Art Deco style, the Civic Center had many friezes both inside and outside the building.
Terra cotta (“burnt earth” in Italian) is a clay material used to decorate buildings since ancient times. According to terra cotta expert Susan Tunick:
By the mid-1920s, architectural terra cotta came to be used frequently by forward-looking architects for a number of different reasons: it is fireproof, lightweight, readily available, and economical; it could also be used to create striking aesthetic effects. The use of colored glazes increased dramatically by the mid-1920s, when fashionable new shades such as peach, lime-green, lavender, and ebony were introduced. Metallic lusters, the result of an expensive double firing process— wherein a coating of liquid silver or gold was added to an already-glazed piece that was then re-fired at a lower temperature—were also developed. The interplay of such colored and textured glazes was used to both accentuate a building’s architectural form and highlight its low-relief ornament. (“Art Deco Terra Cotta,” Art Deco Society of New York, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2017, https://www.artdeco.org/art-deco-terra-cotta).
As a native Philadelphian, I’m familiar with the Civic Center, or Convention Hall as it was known in my youth. During its heyday, from the 1930s to the mid-sixties, it hosted Democratic and Republican conventions (1936, 1940, 1948), a campaign rally featuring President Lyndon Johnson (1964), and concerts by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (1964, 1966).
A High-Victorian Masterpiece
A majestic Knabe square grand piano, built in 1898, was sold recently at Second Chance. Commercial dealers are asking $35,000-$45,000 for comparable instruments.
According to the very generous donor, the piano was made of Brazilian rosewood (now an endangered tree species) and had the original ivory keys (vestiges of a bygone era; ivory can no longer legally be used in musical instruments). It resided in the donor’s living room for 25 years. Purchased by the donor’s great-great-grandfather, it was one of the last square grand pianos that Knabe made. Never restored, it was in excellent condition, except for one key that would not sound. The donor’s father repaired one of its legs after the family dog chewed on it.
Knabe pianos have a distinguished history. A German immigrant founded William Knabe & Co. in Baltimore in the mid-1830s. By the late 1860s it was the third largest piano manufacturer in the United States, after Steinway and Chickering. The company won numerous awards for excellence at trade fairs and expositions.
In the 1890s William Knabe III sponsored concerts in Baltimore by renowned pianists and composers, including Saint-Saens, von Bulow, Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein, who would not have come to the city otherwise. A Knabe concert grand was named official piano of the Metropolitan Opera. Albert Einstein owned a Knabe piano, and Elvis Presley owned a white Knabe grand built in 1912. It was auctioned on Ebay in 2017 for $375,000.
The 300,000 square-foot Knabe factory, which accommodated 765 employees in the early 1900s, stood at Eutaw and West Streets. The company moved to Cincinnati in 1911 and went bankrupt in 1916, but the brand survived.
Over time the Knabe family established branches in New York, Canada and England and merged the company with larger businesses, such as the American Piano Company. The Samick Music Corporation, with headquarters in South Korea and factories in Indonesia, still makes high-quality Knabe pianos.
The long-abandoned Knabe building in Baltimore was razed in the late 1990s to build the M&T football stadium. A sidewalk mosaic of a piano keyboard at the stadium’s southwest corner commemorates the Knabe company’s long association with Baltimore. The building’s cupola resides on the grounds of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
Knabe’s association with Baltimore continues with the William Knabe International Piano Competition, held every summer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for young people aged six to twenty-six.