Senator Theatre

Seen here in 2010, the Senator Theatre is set to finish renovations by December 2012. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / October 6, 2010)

If James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Lyon, have their way, they'll be cutting ribbons by Christmas for a restored Senator Theatre that will preserve the original cinema and add three screens and a small restaurant.

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Tuesday that they would receive $300,000 in a 2012 Sustainable Communities Tax Credit — administered by the Maryland Historical Trust and known previously as the Historic Tax Credit — to rehabilitate the movie house, a North Baltimore landmark since 1939.

The move comes after an advocacy group had complained about the pace of rebuilding and contended that the property has declined under the current operators' stewardship.

"The tax credit was always one of the critical pieces to enable us to do a very nice restoration job," Cusack said Tuesday, adding that he expected the renovations to move quickly, weather permitting. "The look of the theater is important. It's a beautiful old building. We want it looking bright."

Cusack cautioned Tuesday that the theater will close temporarily to complete renovations in time for the big holiday movies.

"The Senator is an anchor for the revitalization of the Belvedere Square area," said Catherine Evans, past president of the Belvedere Improvement Association. Neighborhood leaders are hopeful that a fully revived Senator will reinvigorate the business district around York Road and Belvedere Avenue.

"Is this news gratifying? You bet," Evans said. "Has it made me sad to see the paint peeling on the outside? Sure — but I think Buzz [Cusack] will take care of that."

Cusack explained that his proposal was "significantly different" from an unsuccessful submission he made to the Maryland Historical Trust a year ago.

According to J. Rodney Little, the state historic preservation officer and director of the trust, "if the plans we're currently looking at had been looked at last year, they probably would have gotten the tax credit then."

Although Cusack and Lyon began running the theater in the fall of 2010, the yearlong delay in the tax credit put their rebuilding strategy on hold.

But in a petition that went online last fall, the advocacy group the Friends of the Senator urged "that the management of The Senator Theatre immediately repair all exterior lighting and maintain its appearance." More than 600 people signed the petition.

"Instead of chasing all these little problems, the way to do it is all at once," Cusack said. "If people can be patient and wait until we're completed, everyone will be happy."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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