As I enter the damp and dark interior of North Avenue's Parkway Theatre, I feel as if I've come into a chamber that's been sealed for unforgiving decades.
This landmark theater, closed as a movie house in 1977, turns 100 years old this Friday.
The 1915 building has languished for 38 years. There's water damage to its spectacular plaster interior. Every so often, the basement floods. And yet, as I stopped by this week with Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, I remained dazzled by this survivor.
The Parkway is aging, but what a classic it remains.
The good news is that the Parkway has discovered it has a lot of friends, some with deep pockets. There will be a birthday party Friday to celebrate its promising future.
Private philanthropy and public sources have contributed $14.9 million — out of an $18.2 million total tab — to reopen the Parkway and create a home for the film festival in several surrounding buildings. When completed, the complex, which incorporates structures in the 1800 block of N. Charles St., will be called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center.
The Maryland Film Festival will own and operate the complex. It works with "coalition members" — the Johns Hopkins University and its president, Ron Daniels, and the Maryland Institute College of Art and its president, Samuel Hoi.
Fundraising campaign co-chairs are Paula Rome and Connie Caplan. Another campaign co-chair is film director John Waters. The Niarchos Foundation, the largest single donor, pledged $5 million to the reclamation effort. The state of Maryland has offered a $2 million tax credit and a $2 million capital grant.
Initial construction work begins in the next few weeks. The schedule calls for the heavy lifting to take place in 2016 and the theater to reopen in 2017.
Watch out then. I predict audiences will take to the Parkway as I did, in the 1960s, when the place was still functioning as a quirky movie house long on pedigree and short on patrons. I spent many a weekend in the dark there, taking in its domed ceiling, plaster columns and proscenium arch.
I think the old murals turned to dust, but the place is special.
Its original investors included members of the Webb, Donnelly, Gordon, Williams and Constable families, as well as the Maryland rye distiller W.W. Lanahan.
By some preservation miracle, the Parkway's ancient draped curtain — the one that opened and closed for the shows — remains. It has all the feel of Joan Crawford and Mary Pickford, screen legends whose films played here.
"We think if we touch it, it'll disintegrate," Dietz said the other day.
Of the 950 films reviewed by The New York Times last year, he said, just 300 had played in Baltimore.
"We want to screen films that just aren't otherwise being shown here," he said. "We want to add to the film community. There's a lot to choose from."
The concept is to make Parkway a year-round cultural anchor for Baltimore's film community and film students.
The main Parkway auditorium will be restored; there will also be two smaller, 100-seat film theaters.
"We want the restoration to feel authentic," said architect Steve Ziger. "We hope the restoration feels real. Authenticity is the essence of Station North."
He said some of the more fragile areas may be "dry sealed" to retain the atmosphere of the octogenarian movie palace.
I've heard some say the Parkway project is a rescue, not a restoration. I await the results.
Ziger said an adjacent commercial building, built about 1900 as Fouch's drugstore at 1 W. North Ave. and later known as the Chicken Box, will be demolished. He promises a "dynamic" new building to replace it.
"We see that corner as a vibrant community asset," he said.
The Parkway's 100th birthday will be celebrated from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday at the Ynot Lot, the space at the northwest corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. An exterior illumination of the old theater is planned.