Hippodrome

Mark Sissman, president and CEO of the Hippodrome Foundation, takes a sweeping look at the restoration of the 1914 theater. It will reopen in February after a $65-million renovation project. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna / August 26, 2003)

When architect Hugh Hardy first stepped inside Baltimore's long-dormant Hippodrome Theatre five years ago, he didn't see the broken lights, the worn-out seats, the water-damaged plaster in the ceiling.

He saw instead a once-lavish space in which performers such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra years ago had delighted Marylanders, a space that, though neglected, held vast potential to delight again. "It's the Radio City Music Hall of Baltimore - a big, generous hall with room for everybody," he says.

As one of the leading theater designers in the United States, the New York-based architect is an expert on what makes performing arts centers successful.

Now he's bringing that expertise to Baltimore, where his firm, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, is leading the effort to restore and upgrade the 1914 landmark as the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, a replacement for the aging Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center.

With the grand opening less than six months away - Feb. 10, 2004 - anticipation is building. Mayor Martin O'Malley and other civic leaders are counting on the 2,276-seat theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. to be far more than a new home for traveling Broadway shows that in recent years have bypassed Baltimore.

In their eyes, the Hippodrome will do for Baltimore what Harborplace and Oriole Park did in the 1980s and '90s: catalyze economic development and attract thousands of people to the city, thus literally setting the stage for renewal of Baltimore's once bustling retail district.

So far, the city's cultural gambit appears to be paying off. Broadway hits such as The Producers and Mamma Mia! are booked for the Hippodrome's debut season, and theater management is predicting 450,000 patrons will visit annually. Advance ticket sales are strong, with more than 10,000 season ticket packages sold to date - a reminder of the days when Baltimore led the nation in theater subscriptions.

The theater has been undergoing a $65 million restoration and modernization for the past year. And next February, if patrons like what they see, they can thank Hugh Hardy. While many people have played key roles in "taking Baltimore to the next stage," as project promoters put it, Hardy, more than anyone, has been responsible for shaping that stage - and everything around it.

Building a community

The original Hippodrome Theater was designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in gilded entertainment palaces, and built by Pearce and Scheck, a company that organized touring vaudeville acts.

Like many vaudeville theaters, the Hippodrome was later converted to a movie house, which prospered until well after World War II. But its fortunes faded with the advent of television and suburban department stores, which lured people away from the city's traditional retail hub of Howard and Lexington streets.

By the 1980s, the Hippodrome was showing second-run blaxploitation films and was surrounded by beeper stores and wig shops. In 1990, it went dark altogether - a victim of the urban decay that had consumed much of downtown's west side, even as other parts of the city were experiencing a much vaunted "renaissance."

For Hardy, whose firm was chosen by the state from a field of 13 architecture teams, the project is not simply a matter of rebuilding a derelict theater; it is a chance to rebuild a community.

The 71-year-old architect believes performing arts centers contribute to a sense of community in the same way that markets and stadiums do. In the first decades of the 20th century, he says, cities offered residents of rural areas a place in which to gather, to dine, to share experiences. Urban theaters flourished.

"In a weird way, we're returning to that," he says. "Today we're isolated not by geography but by technology. We're isolated behind the steering wheel of the car. We're isolated in front of the TV set. We're isolated behind the computer screen. There's an excitement in coming together in a big room and sharing experiences with other people."

Although the architect has focused largely on details during the final stages of construction, he is particularly enthusiastic about the big picture - an approach that he believes will set the France-Merrick center apart from other theater restorations around the country.

While many cities have preserved old theaters as stand-alone attractions, he notes, Baltimore chose to make a historic theater the centerpiece of an entire city block of new and restored buildings. Together they form a performing arts powerhouse designed to meet the needs of contemporary theater patrons while retaining much of the building's original character.

No other city has created this sort of urban ensemble devoted to the arts, Hardy says. As a result, the revamped Hippodrome "will be more important [to the city] than it was when it was built."

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