Baltimore theater artists took a $275,000 chance when they bought an old nurses' uniform sales building in a deserted block of North Howard Street.
The building had long ago been subdivided and appeared bleak. It sits on a street that was so depressed that it was once selected for a scene in "The Wire." Customers stopped shopping for living room furniture, bedding and other items here decades ago.
But where some see deterioration, others see opportunity.
"There's been a recent sea change in attitude about this neighborhood," said Ric Royer, artistic director of the theater company Psychic Readings. "People are no longer saying, 'You are crazy.' They are saying, 'What's happening now?'"
Royer, Carly J. Bales and Evan Moritz are co-founders of LeMondo, the group that wants to establish a cultural hub on Howard Street. They name alludes to the John Waters film "Mondo Trasho" — as well as the New York theater company La MaMa and the French word for "world."
The partners are being aided by Winstead "Ted" Rouse, the son of the late James Rouse, who sits on the group's board. His company, Healthy Planet, is helping finance the venture.
Since going public two years ago with their intention to reclaim abandoned Howard Street structures as part of the Bromo Arts District, the partners have bought the commodious Uniform City building at 404 N. Howard Street and are working with city officials to acquire others.
Their plans for Uniform City call for a cultural hub to be open day and night, with performance venues. It will also house rehearsal and scene shop facilities.
The group would like to see a large cafe. The upper floors offer space that could be for living and work.
Bales, artistic director of EMP Collective, said she and her partners had no clue when they bought the old Uniform City building that it had been constructed in 1916 as an early movie house that sat 700 patrons. It had been called the Strand Theatre.
"When we first came here, it was subdivided with partitions — it was two separate stores," she said. "We did some demolition and found there were no columns. It is clear open space — it was then obvious it had been a theater."
Articles in The Baltimore Sun show that it was was managed by the owners of North Avenue's Parkway, another 1916 film house that is now being refurbished.
LeMondo's partners plans to offer their first production this winter. They have acquired a liquor license so audiences can have a drink between the acts.
Carpenters were sawing on the wooden components of a bar when I toured the building this week. About $70,000 has been invested in the project.
The co-founders believe they have crossed a threshold and will soon be at the heart of a new influx of interest. Moritz, of the Annex Theater, stood on Howard Street and pointed to the ongoing construction at Park Avenue and Franklin Street, where a new village of apartments is rising.
Then he pointed to the corner of Howard and Mulberry, where another apartment development is planned.
"There are 600 units right here," he said.
The partners say they wanted to get on Howard Street early, before it is claimed for redevelopment. They like its history and the broad floor space the old buildings here contain. Many saw years of service as furniture and piano showrooms.
"One day you have next to nothing, and the next day, a grant comes in," Bales said.
I had not been inside a building along this block since 1980, when Otto Schellhase closed his fondly recalled German-style restaurant — another structure LeMondo hopes to acquire.
When Schellhase's shut down, it was all the more troubling because the neighborhood seemed to be going nowhere.
Now, 36 years later, one can't help but feel its energy.