When it comes to describing Second Chance and its vast operation in South Baltimore, I hardly know where to begin. So I’ll begin at the entrance: The statue of the angel visiting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and the marble angels to either side — all of that came from the Michigan church where the late Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, worshipped as a boy during the Great Depression.
It’s a long story — just about everything at Second Chance is — so here’s the short version: Throughout his life Kearns believed he was guided by a divine presence. Some time after his famously long and ultimately successful battle with automakers to be compensated for his invention, Kearns heard that his boyhood Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes in River Rouge, near Detroit, was to be demolished. He arranged to buy large elements of it, including statuary, the altar and 64 stained glass windows. He wanted the salvaged parts for a chapel he planned to build in a meadow of Cheston-on-Wye, his estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The chapel was never built. Kearns died in 2005. The pieces from Our Lady of Lourdes ended up at Second Chance.
A lot of things do. Perhaps a million things by now.
I could fill the rest of this column with a list. What first-time visitors see as they walk into the massive showroom can be overwhelming. It’s as if you’ve just walked into a museum of American life — as if the contents of countless grandmother’s houses, millionaire estates, bygone restaurants, hotels, libraries, office buildings and contractor supply depots spilled into a giant warehouse and were suddenly moved by Hogwarts force into orderly rows.
But it’s not magic that maintains order. It’s sweat. Second Chance employs 250 people, and two-thirds of them are ex-offenders, or what we now prefer to call returning citizens — men and women coming out of prison, returning to Baltimore and getting a second chance at stable lives. The operation’s mission is as holistic as they come: Recycling furnishings and building materials, keeping tons of useful stuff out of landfills, and providing jobs for people who usually have a tough time finding them. It’s a nonprofit that salvages lives and lounge chairs.
In the two decades since Mark Foster established Second Chance, it has grown at an impressive rate, from 25,000 square feet in its original retail location to more than 200,000 square feet in the industrial park on the west side of Russell Street. You can’t miss it: The big sign on the facade of the warehouse says: “What Is and What Can Be.”
For years, whole houses have been donated to Second Chance for salvage. Their owners want to knock them down or gut them. That’s when Second Chance crews take over, extracting bricks, floor boards, window sets and doors, chairs and tables, kitchen cabinets and bathroom sinks, bath tubs and tile, staircases and railings, shelves and chifforobes, pianos and organs.
And the crews travel. Seven workers were in Florida this past week to take apart a house that had been donated to Second Chance. Crews have traveled to all surrounding states and the Carolinas and as far north as Maine to clean out or deconstruct houses. All they salvage comes back to Baltimore.
Foster tells me Second Chance takes 250 houses a year.
“And the pandemic was pretty good for us,” he says. While confined to their homes in 2020, people engaged in household repairs and came to Second Chance for materials, or they performed cleanouts and donated their unwanted items. The nonprofit reduced its showroom openings to Thursdays through Sundays, but business improved significantly, says Foster, and the four-day retail operation remains in place.
The other day, I saw customers scouting toilets and bathroom vanities, wicker chairs and end tables. A man purchased a grandfather clock, and Second Chance employees helped him load it into a truck.
I try to refrain from using the word “amazed,” but I was again genuinely amazed at the scope of Second Chance offerings and the way the place is organized. You never feel you’re negotiating a mass of clutter or worry that something is going to fall on your head or that you’re going to stub a toe on a claw foot bathtub.
And the size of things can wow — iconic red-and-white “MARYLAND” lettering from the end line of the old basketball court at Cole Field House; the giant “U” from the former Domino Sugars sign; an enormous, tufted carpet that looks like it came from a sultan’s palace and ornate cabinetry from a sprawling Florida mansion.
Some items are, shall we say, given to speculation. For sale now is a baroque, black marble dining room table, with inlay cherubs, and eight gold leaf chairs. It looks like something from Donald Trump’s Manhattan penthouse. Someone at Second Chance thinks someone else will pay $7,589 for it, and they might be right.
I saw a huge, round conference table almost as big as the one used in the Paris Peace Talks of 1973. I came across a glass curio cabinet that, I swear, could have come from my Aunt Minnie’s house.
Sometimes Second Chance induces longing.
If I had the space and funds, I’d buy the 19th Century bar and back bar from the Deutsch Ungarisches Gasthaus, a long-gone Locust Point saloon and hostel, and have the club basement of my dreams.