The newest star of the Charles North-Station North neighborhoods opened this week — a place called the Motor House, at 120 W. North Ave.
Its name is a nod to the site's former incarnations as Ford and Graham-Paige auto dealerships, but the old building has seen many other uses. I knew it as the Lombard Office Supply and, more recently, as the Load of Fun Gallery. Single Carrot Theatre had a run here, too.
After a $6.5 million restoration, this three-story auto showroom and circa-1914 garage has been transformed into an arts hub. It houses administrative offices, artists' studios and a performance space.
I toured the Motor House this week and left thinking how much has been accomplished here in a decade, mainly through a robust public-private partnership to preserve and enrich a neighborhood fixture that many would have dismissed.
The Motor House's rebirth has been a community effort. The state assisted with historic tax credits and funds from its Community Legacy and Neighborhood Business Works programs.
Meanwhile, the France-Merrick, Blaustein and Goldseker foundations also pledged money. These groups, led by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, took up the cause to save the facility after its previous owner voluntarily closed Load of Fun when city inspectors cited safety violations in 2012. The building is now owned by Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., a nonprofit real estate company.
Considering the ancient wiring the building had, I have to wonder how there had never been an electrical fire. Old city properties might have wonderful skylights, hardwood floors and huge windows, but they also can have safety hazards that require expensive repair.
With its rebirth, Motor House now joins other North Avenue landmarks, including the Maryland Institute College of Art's Lazarus Building, the Centre Theater and the Parkway Theatre, which is slated for a return to glory in 2016. To those who have never explored nearby Greenmount Avenue and Federal Street, I also recommend that area as an emerging arts residential district.
The Motor House is triple-stacked. The first floor performance space is open for arts bookings in what had been the garage's work and repair area. New artists studios on the second floor are available for rent — a little more than $1 a square foot per month.
The third floor is home to nonprofit arts organizations including Neighborhood Design Center, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Arts Every Day, Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc., FutureMakers and Maryland Citizens for the Arts.
"My hope is that we get an abundance of local artists and performers here," said David D. Mitchell, the Motor House's creative director.
Mitchell, a graduate of Morgan State University and the New School in New York, said he wants arts groups to consider making use of the new space. He envisions jazz performances, poetry readings and other events — in a place where performing artists can find a stage and gain an audience.
"The arts community is definitely growing and establishing a footprint," he said. "We have a unique community, and they will create art wherever they want to."
"We have made a significant investment in the technical aspects of the performance space," he said, noting that the Motor House space has a capacity for up to 230 attendees. When its stage is used, there are seats for 175 patrons. The performance space is equipped with new lighting.
The one major vacancy at Motor House is a designated cafe area in the former auto showroom. No restaurateur has stepped up to lease it — yet.
"Restaurants are still a little uneasy about this end of North Avenue," said Laurens "Mac" MacLure, director of Baltimore Arts Realty Corp. "So we made a decision to go ahead and open one ourselves for the time being."
It adds to the mix at the Motor House, perhaps propelling it on its way as a venue catering to the up and coming art scene.