A brief history of Bertha’s
Through the eyes of our oldest and dearest friend, Bob Eney.
It all began when Tony Norris, an instructor of classical guitar at George Washington University, Wash. D.C., and his wife Laura Norris, a violinist and music instructor, also at George Washington, teamed up with a friend to buy a decrepit bar in the backwater area of Fell’s Point, Baltimore. The bar at the time was called “The Lone Star”. The Fell’s Point area of Baltimore was a neglected, run down neighborhood of old bars, warehouses and 18th and 19th Century buildings lined by rough cobblestone streets. Most of these buildings had been converted into rooming houses with many of them completely dilapidated along the deserted market square.
The neighborhood had almost hit bottom. Most of this was centered on Thames Street along the Baltimore City waterfront. The northwest branch of the Patapsco River meandered past Fell’s Point, northward about a mile to the renewed basin that was fast becoming the center of Baltimore’s new Inner Harbor.
The Lone Star bar that Tony and Laura purchased around 1972 picked up an almost instant clientele due to its funky location.
‘Tony found a stained glass memorial window in a Baltimore junk shop, this window was dedicated to the memory of a Bertha E. Bartholomew’
Tony found a stained glass memorial window in a Baltimore junk shop, this window was dedicated to the memory of Bertha E. Bartholomew, whose identity remains unknown to this day. The stained glass window displayed with lighting behind it was hung over the bar and thus the bar became known as Berthas. Around this time a group of college students bought the old “Thames and Dames”, a bar at the foot of Market Square, and renamed it “Leadbetter’s”. Almost immediately, across the street, “Al and Ann’s” was sold to new owners and became “The Horse You Came In On”. Then a shabby old bar on the east side of Market Square became “The Whistling Oyster”. The waterfront, long neglected by Baltimoreans, rapidly became known as the “entertainment zone”.
Fell’s point had become the target for Baltimore’s young set and historic preservationists as well. Around the time that Tony replaced one of his original partners, he designed the now famous EAT BERTHA’S MUSSELS bumper sticker. The sticker was an instant success among their following and soon became familiar around the world with sightings on all seven continents. The sticker is still mailed out daily and taken with every customer as they leave. With a growing reputation and good following, Tony and Laura needed more space for dinning. Unable to negotiate a sale for the building adjacent to Berthas on Broadway, the couple purchased the next building north on Broadway, a bar called “La Marina”., 1980. This building was connected to the original property at the rear, wrapping around the unattainable property and giving Berthas a horseshoe affect. This added space fired up Tony’s’ insatiable appetite for collecting rare antiques, pieces of junk and musical memorabilia, which he hangs on the walls, nails to the ceilings and fills every ledge, nook and cranny. His motto is “We buy old junk and sell rare antiques.” He rarely parts with any of his junk because most of it has become permanent fixtures in Bertha’s.
Fells Point has changed rapidly throughout the years. Businesses come and go with dreams of making millions. Bars close their doors because of ever changing clientele. Politicians and city planners also play a part in the changing environment of the old waterfront neighborhood. In fact Laura and Tony, and their first partner were able to afford the original property on Broadway because the majority of Fells Point was scheduled to be demolished by the city to make way for a super highway where I-83, I-95, and I-70 were scheduled to meet which would lighten the rush hour commute. The City had condemned a total of 97 structures including everything from Thames St., which ran along the harbor to Lancaster St.. The dinning room door would have looked out onto 16 lanes of highway. But life never stopped for the community. In fact these plans were one of the reasons the neighborhood became a community. People of all different facets of life came together to form the most unlikely alliance. All of the different cultures; the artists, the seamen, the preservationists and the rest of the community banned together and began to fight the destruction of their homes. The Preservation Society of Fells Point and Canton was born at this time and now is one of the most influential and well-respected historical groups in Maryland. The Preservation Society was hard at work buying any properties available and pleaded its case to have the waterfront community added to the National Historic Register, which it finally was. Since no Federal money can be used for the destruction of historic properties, Fells Point was saved. Shortly after this in 1976, just before the birth of their second child, Laura and Tony purchased one of the 97 structures scheduled for demolition. That rehabbed building became the home that they still live in today. As Bertha’s expanded, Laura and Tony left their primary occupations as musicians and took on a more full time gig of running the establishment. Even though the restaurant takes up the majority of their time, Tony and Laura remain close to their first love by performing with the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra. Tony is a guitarist while Laura now plays the mandolin. Their lives and those of their many eccentric customers they have met through the years have allowed Bertha’s to become a Baltimore landmark which has stood the test of time.