BALTIMORE -- The gleaming porcelain walls, gooseneck lamps and logo of White Tower restaurant No. 8 are being preserved as a symbol of early fast-food culture in America.

The City of Baltimore has decided to hold on to this 1948 precursor of McDonald's and its billions of hamburgers -- a restaurant that served thousands of quick meals once as cheap as a 5-cent all-beef hamburger and a freshly brewed nickel cup of coffee.

Last week, Brock Saxe, looking unlike a corporate president, donned a white hardhat, scaled some scaffolding along the 21-foot tower and helped remove "Whitey," the symbol of the chain that his father founded in Milwaukee in 1926.

Of the 230 White Towers in operation at the chain's height in the 1950s, only 15 remained open in 1987, including three in Baltimore. No. 8 stopped serving Sept. 30 when a nearby Greyhound bus station closed, halting a once steady supply of customers.

Preserving this small part of Baltimore's changing commercial district began almost as a jest, when the chairman of the Market Center Development Corp., which was renovating the area near the restaurant, asked the executive director of the Baltimore City Life museums, "You want a White Tower?"

Nancy Brennan lightheartedly replied, "A White Tower? I've always wanted a White Tower."

What she got was a project forcing a slight design change in the new $3 million center for Baltimore history, so that its 18-foot walls can accommodate the 21-foot tower and offer a visual punch to museumgoers. "You need to do something wonderful and evocative," she said.

From a purely historical point of view, the gift of the White Tower and the reminiscences of its workers provide a hard-to-reject resource for social history.

The White Tower "was a focus of urban life 24 hours a day, seven days a week for four decades. It can be an artifact, an architectural relic, but it also can be a time capsule," Brennan said.