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‘Everything was lit up’: Arch Social Club seeks zoning approval for new marquee signaling rebirth of Pennsylvania Avenue

Sometimes, a sign of upcoming social change is just that — a sign.

A zoning hearing Tuesday afternoon will determine whether the Arch Social Club can proceed with plans to erect a marquee on the facade of the historic 109-year-old building it owns at North and Pennsylvania avenues.

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If a zoning change for the building from rowhouse/mixed use to a commercial use is approved, a new 4.5-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide marquee would spell out the name of the Arch Social Club in dark letters, backlit by LED lighting.

The Arch is the oldest known continuously operating African American social club in the United States. The organization’s president, Van Anderson, hopes the sign will signal the rebirth of Pennsylvania Avenue as the hub of Baltimore’s thriving Black cultural district.

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Alison Staples, co-leader of the Black running group called Riot Squad (Running Is Our Therapy). The group incorporated Black history in its February runs by including Black historical landmarks, such as the Arch Social Club at Penn North, in the background.
Alison Staples, co-leader of the Black running group called Riot Squad (Running Is Our Therapy). The group incorporated Black history in its February runs by including Black historical landmarks, such as the Arch Social Club at Penn North, in the background. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“It’s going to take awhile for the Avenue to come all the way back,” Anderson said. “But when it does, we’ll be ready.”

The Beaux Arts-style building was designed by architect Paul Emmart as a vaudeville and silent film theater in 1912 and opened originally as the Schanze Theatre. Over the years, it served Black and Jewish customers under several names: the Morgan, the Uptown, the Cinema. A marquee was added in 1942; the sign proposed by the Arch Social Club would be historically compatible with and resemble the original marquee, Anderson said.

The city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation approved the proposed marquee in September.

“They have done such a wonderful job of restoring the facade of the building to its earlier, historical appearance,” said Lauren Schiszik, a historic preservation planner for the commission.

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“The building already has such presence. It’s so alive and vibrant that you can’t go by it and not notice it. The marquee will increase its visibility even more.”

The process of restoring the building to its former beauty has been long and slow. In some ways, it mirrors the attempts to revive the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor.

Anderson encountered Pennsylvania Avenue in its full glory as a boy in the 1960s, driving down the street with his family.

“Everything was lit up,” he recalled. “There were so many people in the street that you couldn’t drive faster than 5 miles an hour. It was full of bars and nightclubs and movie theaters and places to go.”

The area was home to the Royal and Metropolitan theaters and such entertainment venues as the Bamboo Lounge, Club Casino and Club Tijuana, which attracted top black entertainers of the day.

“What I remember most was that it felt clean and safe,” Anderson said. “Everybody was walking from place to place. That’s going to be key to our plans. We want the neighborhood and our building to look and feel clean and safe.”

The two-story vaudeville palace fell on hard times while the neighborhood was still enjoying its heyday. A fire ravaged the theater in 1949 and ended its role as an entertainment venue, according to a report prepared by the historical commission staff.

For more than two decades, the building at 2426 Pennsylvania Ave. was part of Wilson’s seafood restaurant. Wooden siding covered its entrance behind two Corinthian pilasters. The large, half-moon-shaped window on the second floor was boarded over. The paint on two female figures lounging over the window and holding Greek masks signifying comedy and tragedy was chipped and faded.

The neighborhood around the former theater began to deteriorate in 1968 with the devastating riots, fires and looting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The following decade, the city dealt Pennsylvania Avenue another blow when it demolished several iconic buildings in the name of urban renewal.

Arch Social Club, founded in 1905, relocated to the theater from Saratoga Street in 1972.

Today, new signs of life can be detected in the building and the neighborhood.

In 2018, Arch Social Club members won a $118,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help restore the marquee and other improvements. The club has been working with the architectural firm of David H. Gleason Associates, and is attempting to raise $5 million for planned renovations.

Anderson hopes the building eventually will become a venue for jazz and blues combos and other types of live music that would entertain audiences of as many as 500 people. A planned museum would explore the Arch’s history and heritage. There will be new electrical and plumbing systems, elevators and physical accommodations for people with disabilities.

And in the summer of 2019, the Maryland Department of Commerce designated the surrounding neighborhood as the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts Entertainment District — the nation’s first Black entertainment district, according to CHAP — making tax credits available to develop spaces where artists live, work and perform.

Brion “Lady Brion” Gill, a spoken-word poet and executive director for the arts and entertainment district, thinks that a splendid new marquee topping the Arch will signal to the world that the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor is on its way back.

“That intersection is the gateway to the Black Arts and Entertainment district,” she said.

“The Arch Social Club is one of the district’s gems. It has survived with the times and helped to preserve the rich legacy and culture of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Arch has not only survived, it has adapted to the times and enhanced its mission. We are super-excited about what they have planned.”

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