Commission may remove Mechanic's protected status

The Mechanic Theatre's future remains uncertain, with developers seeking to build two residential towers on the property.
The Mechanic Theatre's future remains uncertain, with developers seeking to build two residential towers on the property.(Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Members of the city's historical preservation commission indicated Tuesday that they favor demolishing theMorris A. Mechanic Theatre.

"To me, it is obvious that the Mechanic is going to be demolished," said Larry Gibson, a member of the Planning Department's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, during the group's monthly meeting. "It is simply a matter of when, not a matter of whether."


The commission is at the center of a debate over whether the cast-concrete "Brutalist" theater, built more than 40 years ago, is worth saving.

After the downtown business community overwhelmingly made its preference known — tear down the theater — Gibson introduced a motion to remove the Mechanic from CHAP's "special list," which allows for a six-month delay on permits to alter historically or architecturally significant buildings.

He then moved to table the motion until the commission's September meeting to provide time for the public to weigh in. CHAP had been expected to vote Tuesday on whether to enact the delay period, which would have prevented the issuance of a demolition permit for the redevelopment of the property at Baltimore and Charles streets until early 2013.

"Just because it has sentimental value doesn't mean it is worth saving," Baltimore City Councilman Bill Cole, who represents downtown and South Baltimore, said of the Mechanic. "It has no current useful purpose."

His feelings were echoed by letters from more than 20 downtown organizations, including T. Rowe Price, Constellation Energy Group, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Mercy Medical Center.

The commission voted 9-2 to table the vote on the Mechanic's removal from the list until its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 11.

If the Mechanic loses its special-list protection, downtown's Urban Renewal Plan would prevent demolition from proceeding until the developers are ready to begin construction.

Owings Mills-based developer David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd. and the Washington architecture firm Shalom Baranes Associates released plans this spring to raze the Mechanic and build two residential towers above three stories of retail space and five levels of underground parking.


The commission also voted Tuesday to recommend that the exterior of the Parkway Theatre on West North Avenue at North Charles Street be placed on the city's designated landmarks list. Designation would also need approval from the Planning Commission and the formal passage of an ordinance by the City Council.

TheBaltimore Development Corp.is considering two proposals for the theater's renovation, said Phil E. Croskey, the BDC's director of economic development for the West Side.

A proposal selection is expected within the next four months, he said. Once a developer is selected, the BDC may request that interior elements be recommended for placement on the landmark list as well, he said.

The Parkway opened in 1915 and is the first theater documented to be wired for films with soundtracks, according to Lauren Schiszik, a member of CHAP's staff. The Italian Renaissance Revival theater also was owned for a time by Morris A. Mechanic, who ran several theaters in Baltimore.