For Jenny Hope, president of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange board, the decision to end the exchange, a fixture of downtown Baltimore for more than a century, was bittersweet. The volunteer organization of Baltimore women helping other women would be no more yet Hope takes solace in knowing its mission will continue in new hands.
This month, the Women’s Industrial Exchange transferred ownership of its historic headquarters building in the 300 block of North Charles Street to Marian House, an organization started by Catholic women religious and devoted to helping women who are struggling with a wide range of issues – including homelessness, addiction and abuse – get back on their feet and live independently.
In 1880, the Women’s Industrial Exchange was founded as an organization to help women earn income who were often shut out of the traditional workforce. For decades, the exchange operated a restaurant and ran a gift shop selling handmade crafts and other goods made by women.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Katie Allston, executive director of Marian House. “There’s so much synergy between us and the organization that was created two centuries ago for the purpose of helping women maintain themselves financially, be independent and support their families. It’s wonderful that if it was going to go away in the current iteration, that they choose an organization with a like-minded mission to take over the physical space.”
Allston said plans for the donated space are still developing. Marian House will hold virtual meetings with its new Mount Vernon neighbors to generate ideas on how to use the historic building. While Allston said there are no plans to use the building as a women’s shelter, the Women’s Industrial Exchange’s central downtown location would be a huge asset for the organization, which offers a number of critical services for struggling women and their children.
Marian House already operates two campuses in residential neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore. More than 100 women and their children are currently being served by Marian House.
“They’ve been around for a long time,” Hope said of the organization founded in 1982 by the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame. “They’re smart about growth and they’re well resourced. And they serve women. With the history of the Women’s Exchange serving women, it was a natural fit.”
Hope said the decision to bring the Exchange to a close started late last year. The Exchange once ran a popular tea room restaurant in the building, but in 1999 decided to lease the space to other operators. Yet none of them had the staying power of the original restaurant.
Known for its veteran waitress, chicken salad, deviled eggs and tomato aspic, the restaurant was a popular lunch spot for downtown office workers (including employees of the Catholic Center) and movers and shakers such as Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski for years. Actresses Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell even shared a scene there in the 1993 movie “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Hope said the rich history of the Women’s Industrial Exchange will live on with donations to the Maryland Historical Society and under Marian House’s stewardship. The building will now be called “Marian House at the Women’s Exchange.”
“They want to keep the mission safe,” Hope said. “They get it.”
Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org
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