Recreation Pier had many lives

Will Recreation Pier return to glory?

Nearly 25 years ago, I attended a friend's 50th birthday party in the interior hall of the 1914 Recreation Pier on Thames Street in Fells Point. This fabulous chamber was created as a civic assembly space in the year Baltimore celebrated the centennial of the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Now it is to be the centerpiece of a new hotel to be retrofitted within the site. There was a groundbreaking this week, with city officials joining Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, who assumed the considerable task of making this grand landmark into a 128-room hotel.

In 1914, The Baltimore Sun described the pier's second floor as a "dance hall" where "socials will be held." A Sagamore Development news release issued this week called the spot "a premiere wedding and special events space." That's not hyperbole; I've been waiting for a chance to get back into that room, with its expansive views of the harbor. The space is out of the Titanic era of rich architectural detailing.

For years the redevelopment of the aging Recreation Pier has been troublesome. Other developers have tried but never delivered. Sagamore's plans call for the guest rooms to be fitted into the former shed portion of the pier.

The old Rec Pier is a venerable Fells Point landmark. I miss the line of Moran tugboats that were such a colorful maritime presence here. Long gone is the port's maritime radio station, the Baltimore Maritime Exchange, which also was headquartered within the pier.

It's had some curious uses. During World War II, a ship carrying Naval Academy cadets up from Annapolis docked here and discharged the midshipmen. They then marched to the old Baltimore Stadium, later rebuilt as Memorial Stadium, for the Army-Navy game.

And except for the occasional tall ship that calls at the foot of Broadway, there are no more freighters docked at what had been one of the city's most salty and atmospheric locations. Others will recall Recreation Pier from its days as a set in "Homicide: Life on the Streets."

It also had another use. The old Playground Athletic League wanted a place for children from Fells Point and other Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods. It was a progressive idea to a combine a useful port activity with a rooftop playground.

Rec Pier also was a terminal for the old ferry that crossed the harbor to Locust Point.

Last summer I was standing on the top floor of another amazing Baltimore space. I looked across the downtown skyline from North Avenue and toward the stone tower of the Seventh Baptist Church. My vantage point was in the process of being reclaimed after decades of vacancy. But even before a new roof went on, the place reminded me of a vast, fabulous, uncluttered urban attic.

While attending a ceremony to mark the facade and marquee lighting of the 1938 Centre Theatre on North Avenue this week, I learned that wonderful top floor has been leased by Sparkypants Studios. I spoke with Dave Inscore, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate, who is art director for the game developer. He describes his firm as "a veteran group of game developers" who are now working in Mount Washington.

"We can't be a garage band in the basement anymore," said Inscore. "We are excited to be at the front end of the rebirth along North Avenue. When we get in there, at any time we can look up and see six skylights."

Sparkypants will join others in the Centre Theatre, which ceased being an actual film house in 1959 and spent 30 years as a banking center.

The North Avenue building will mainly house activities of MICA and the Johns Hopkins University. The theater was built by local showman Morris A. Mechanic. It's ironic that his much-better-known 1967 theater at Charles and Baltimore streets is all but demolished, but an overlooked building he unveiled as a young business entrepreneur is now a glowing asset, repurposed and attracting young talent.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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