1951 - 2013
Published: December 25, 2013
For all who’ve slurped oysters at Nick’s in Cross Street Market, bellied up to the bars at Hammerjacks’ first two incarnations, or ordered brick-oven pizza at the Tell-Tale Hearth or blackened-chicken Caesar salad at Gypsy’s Cafe in Sowebo, both long gone—well, these experiences share a common denominator: Michael Lewis Stanley, the stained glass artist, sculptor, and mason who, at 62 years old, passed away from cancer on July 4.
Fortunately, the large stained glass piece at Nick’s is still around for public enjoyment, a colorful row of fish centered by a green catfish with the Greek words for “fresh fish” beneath it. But the others, like Stanley himself, are now gone, at least from the public eye.
Stanley’s wife, Rebecca Kolberg, says some of Stanley’s Hammerjacks pieces were “abstract” and “others were of dancing girls or strippers, partially nude with garter belts and heels.” A 1989 Baltimore Sun photograph of Hammerjacks’ second location, on Howard Street—the one that was demolished in 1997 to make way for Baltimore’s football stadium—shows a Stanley piece hung behind one of the rock club’s many bars, depicting high-heeled women’s legs amidst barstools. When the place was getting set to be demolished, owner Louie Principio wanted to salvage the art, and “Mike helped Louie remove the glass and take it to his home,” Kolberg recalls, though she doesn’t “know what happened to it after that.”
The Tell-Tale Hearth’s prodigious brick oven was removed earlier this year by the current proprietors of its former location, Zella’s Pizzeria, while the stained glass transom at Gypsy’s Café—which Stanley created with City Paper photographer John Ellsberry, an accomplished stained glass mosaic artist who says he first learned to work with glass under Stanley’s tutelage—fell victim to the building’s unexpected collapse in 2000.
Stanley also made stained glass transoms for “probably a dozen or two homes in Federal Hill, Otterbein, Ridgley’s Delight, and Sowebo,” says Kolberg, many of them renderings of lilies or roses, “but he mainly made relatively large stained glass artworks for people to hang in their windows.” As for his masonry, Kolberg says “he built beautiful brick arches” at Mencken’s Cultured Pearl in Sowebo and Sisson’s in Federal Hill (both establishments now replaced with new restaurants), as well as the Wharf Rat in Camden Yards (now Pratt Street Ale House), and restored and repaired stone and brick, “including the balustrades around the Washington Monument Park and the high spire on the First & Franklin Presbyterian Church.”
Kolberg met her future husband in 1982, she says, when Stanley was living on Mount Vernon Square. “He sometimes paid his rent with some of the metal sculptures he made,” she recalls, “including a magnificent octopus.” In 1984, he starred in Prisoners on Beaverkill Run, a short fugitives-on-the-run movie made with Ellsberry and Michael Gentile, who at the time was City Paper’s art director.
Aside from his artistic pursuits, Stanley stood out as a fabulous storyteller, a well of unexpected knowledge, and an exceptionally kind soul cloaked in a gruff exterior. The founder of the original 8x10 Club in Federal Hill, Dicky Gamerman, wrote in remembrance that Stanley “was like a character out of Cannery Row,” the John Steinback novel, noting “how fitting [it was] that he died on the 4th of July, for he was an American original.”
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