When Baltimore developer Charlie Duff placed the winning bid on a vacant former theater in Station North, it looked like the possible setting of an Indiana Jones movie: Green mold grew on surfaces throughout the building, a tree sprouted through the middle of a staircase.
Three years and $18.5 million later, the Centre remains a place where movies might be made — but now as renovated offices set to house film departments for the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University, among other tenants.
On Tuesday, Duff's nonprofit development firm, Jubilee Baltimore, plans to light the old movie marquee in celebration of the nearly complete rehabilitation of 10 E. North Ave. The first of the new occupants, Neighborhood Housing Services, is scheduled to move in next month.
Opened around 1913 as a car dealership, the Centre operated as a theater from 1939 to 1959, with a 1,000-seat auditorium and a radio station that hosted live performances. The building later became a check-processing center for Equitable Trust Co. and a church before going to auction in 2012.
Duff said he had no plans for the building when he purchased it for $93,000, except to make it contribute to efforts by nearby universities, neighborhood groups and businesses to develop the arts district and strengthen the Central Baltimore corridor.
"We knew that we wanted the building to be a part of a vibrant Station North. We didn't know anything else," said Duff, whose Jubilee Baltimore has worked on the rehab of hundreds of rowhouses as well as the nearby housing for artists at the City Arts building and was invited to participate by another neighborhood group working in the area.
This is Jubilee Baltimore's first project without a residential component and its single-most expensive, with financing cobbled together from sources that include roughly $6.5 million in state and federal historic tax credits and investments by Chase Bank, Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund and Telesis Corp., the latter two of which have redevelopment projects nearby.
The rehab, which involves Ziger/Snead Architects and Southway Builders, got underway about a year ago, starting with months of asbestos removal, Duff said. Crews installed new mechancial systems, elevators and stairways. They rewired the soundstage and opened up walls with windows, in homage to the building's days as a car dealership.
MICA and Hopkins are expected to move their film departments into the second floor this summer, bringing about 150 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff.
The Baltimore Jewelry Center, a so-called makerspace for jewelry and metalwork for the public, is taking about 3,500 square feet on the ground floor. Five nonprofits, including Jubilee and Neighborhood Housing Services, are leasing space in the building as well, as part of a consortium dubbed the Center for Neighborhoods.
The film departments at MICA and Johns Hopkins started talking about increasing collaboration 10 years ago and began offering joint courses in 2008, said Linda DeLibero, director of film and media studies for Johns Hopkins. The Centre's redevelopment helped push those discussions forward, she said.
The new space coincides with the launch of graduate programs focused on film at MICA and Johns Hopkins, a reflection of increased interest in film as technology has made the discipline more accessible.
Students will be able to cross-register, and some courses will be jointly taught, DeLibero said. The programs also will use space at the nearby Parkway Theatre, where renovation is scheduled to start in the fall for an opening in 2016.
Andy Frank, special adviser to Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, said the decision to locate the film program off campus was part of a commitment by the university to invest in its host neighborhoods.
"Locating real estate off campus is a way the university can serve its own interests, but also the interests of the community," he said.
Michael Molla, vice president of operations for MICA, said his hope is to turn Station North into an area that rivals arts districts in other major cities, such as New York. MICA opened its Fred Lazarus IV Building at 131 W. North Ave. in 2012 and also owns property at 1801 Falls Road nearby.
"Station North has this great potential … to make Baltimore a hub of emerging artists and designers," he said.