One hundred years ago this summer, the Empire Theater opened as one of the premier vaudeville houses on downtown Baltimore's west side.
After decades of dormancy, the landmark is set to house live performances once again as the new home of Everyman Theatre.
Theater representatives and supporters staged a block party Tuesday morning to celebrate the start of a $17.7 million renovation of the historic building at 315 W. Fayette St. for use by the professional theater starting in the fall of 2012.
The reopened theater is planned to be part of the growing arts district on the west side, one block from the restored France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and two blocks from the Bromo Seltzer tower.
"The foundation is laid. The deal is done. The jackhammers are ready and it's official: Everyman Theatre is building its new home," the theater's founder and artistic director, Vincent Lancisi, told more than 100 people at the gathering.
With the addition of Everyman, Lancisi said, "we'll grow the west side, and restaurants, businesses and services will continue to crop up, making this an even better destination for patrons."
Plans by Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore call for a 250-seat main theater, nearly half again as large as Everyman's current 170-seat space on North Charles Street, plus rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, shops for artisans, offices, classrooms and space for a possible second theater in the future.
"Everyman's move … is a momentous occasion for the arts community and will build on the progress that has already taken place on the west side," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at the event Tuesday.
Last known as the Town Theater and empty since 1990, the building is the last large vacant property on the block bounded by Fayette, Eutaw, Baltimore and Howard streets.
Everyman bought the theater for $1 from the Bank of America Community Development Corp. and the Harold A. Dawson Trust with the promise to restore the building as a performing-arts venue.
Everyman, which was founded in 1990, is a professional theater company with a resident ensemble of artists from the Baltimore-Washington area and more than 4,000 season ticket holders. The company recently announced its final season in the Charles Street space.
Architect Khanh Uong said the new, larger theater will allow the company to present a wider range of shows than it can in the current space. The headroom on Fayette Street will be up to 28 feet; on Charles Street, it's 10 to 12 feet.
With the higher ceiling, managing director Ian Tresselt said, the company will be able to mount productions that call for multistory sets, such as "Romeo and Juliet."
The new theater will also enable the company for the first time to bring all its facilities, including rehearsal and classroom space, under one roof. It also will allow the company to present six shows a year, Tresselt said. It now produces five shows annually.
More than 100 individuals or organizations have donated or pledged a total of $16.4 million to the theater's fund drive, which began in 2006. While they are still trying to raise the final $1 million, board members say they have enough money to begin work, with the help of a loan from CFG Community Bank of Mount Washington.
The Empire was a venue for vaudeville, Yiddish theater, boxing matches and bingo parties. After burlesque performances led to complaints of indecency, the building was converted in the late 1930s to a parking garage. In 1947, Baltimore architects John Zink and Lucius R. White Jr. turned the building into a 1,550-seat movie house. It closed in 1990.
The renovation timetable calls for a three-month demolition period, which began recently, followed by the erection of the structural framework for the new space. Some guests at Tuesday's event were allowed to enter the cavernous space of the old auditorium, where seats are being removed to make way for the new performing area.
All work is scheduled for completion in time for the start of Everyman's 2012-2013 season.
Theater officials said the renovation would create 185 construction jobs and 25 permanent jobs, and bring more than 30,000 theater patrons to the area every year.
One feature of the historic theater that won't be removed is a large "E" on the front of the building. It once stood for Empire; now it will stand for Everyman.