When seven former college friends first ventured inside the former shoe factory at 306 W. Redwood St., it was filled with junk and there were holes in the floor.
There wasn't an electrical outlet to be found, let alone the remnants of the former heating and cooling systems. Each footstep unearthed more rats. And everything, including the ceiling, was covered with grime.
No wonder they fell in love with the place.
"As soon as we walked in the door, we could see the potential," says Brad Leroy Cartwright, a local writer and member of the EMP Collective, an energetic group of young artists, musicians and actors.
"We knew that it was made for us, that it could be somewhere where we could all work and play and collaborate with one another."
When the collective celebrated the building's grand reopening on Oct. 7 in the space that they are calling EMP, guests were charmed by the 19th-century red brick-and-stone façade with decorative cornices. Inside, the visitors found 5,000 square feet of performance and exhibition space.
The first floor contains a 70-seat theater and a gallery that currently is showcasing the work of visual artist Nolan Cartwright, Brad's brother. The basement houses a second performing space, a bar area, and storage rooms for costumes and props.
The reopening represents a small victory in Baltimore's battle to revitalize its economically depressed west side.
The Redwood Street building was rehabilitated with a $10,000 grant, one of a dozen handed out by the Downtown Partnership to entrepreneurs seeking to open small businesses in vacant commercial properties. Those businesses include a bakery specializing in cupcakes and a store that makes furniture from salvaged wood.
Development officials hope that starting several small enterprises in close proximity will draw foot traffic that will eventually turn around the blighted blocks. In exchange, collective members made up in sweat equity what they lacked in cash.
"We hauled out so many loads of trash," says Katy Dubina, EMP's media coordinator, "that on our last trip, they made us go to a different dump."
Despite the hard work, the grant was too good an opportunity for the collective to pass up. Without a permanent home, performing groups lead a nomadic existence that makes it difficult for them to build a steady audience.
"A few weeks of working until 4 a.m. every day to get the building in shape isn't too much to ask if we're still here a few years from now," Nolan Cartwright says.
Not only will the venue stage shows and display artwork by EMP artists; the space is available for rent to other Baltimore-area performing groups.
"The space we chose had to be flexible enough to be configured for different artistic mediums," Brad Cartwright says. "We must have checked out a dozen different buildings. We looked so long, we almost lost hope."
EMP's ensemble members create in a wide range of genres. Dubina, for instance, is a classically trained musician. Brad Cartwright is a filmmaker, and producing director Maggie Villegas is a mime.
The only thing you'll likely never find on Redwood Street is a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" or a Bach concerto. EMP stages only shows that its members have written themselves or that they've commissioned.
"A huge focus for us is the cross-pollination between different art forms," says Carly J. Bales, the company's artistic director.
In January, EMP will stage its first show in its new home, "Night Sweats," a 50-minute piece incorporating original music, puppets, movement and film.
Current offerings include a Tuesday night writing workshop that will culminate in a public reading on Dec. 2; a film series held on the first and third Sundays of every month; and a showing by a new gallery artist each month. (Craig Horkey's works will be on display in November.)
In addition, the collective's quirky sensibility can be sampled in several short videos posted at empcollective.org. The films include "Hoop's the Boss?" a workplace murder mystery featuring a necktie-wearing hula hoop, and a series of hilarious mock testimonials.
"We want the audience to get the feeling that they're on a ride," Dubina says. "They're going to experience something a little dark and a little funny that they've never experienced before."