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Much of Mayfair Theatre to be razed

City plans to raze much of historic Mayfair Theatre — but will keep facade, lobby.

The crumbling 112-year-old Mayfair Theatre, its roof collapsed and much of what remains damaged by a fire at an adjacent building, will lose all but its ornate facade and some 35 feet of its front lobby. Two engineering firms have determined that its continued presence in the 500 block of North Howard Street is a threat to public safety.

Demolition of the rear of the structure, much loved by preservationists who for years hoped it could be turned into an entertainment or retail complex, could occur as early as this week, said Tania Baker, director of communication for Baltimore Housing.

The two engineering firms, KCI and WBCM, agreed that the building was in such sad shape that it needs to be taken down immediately, said Susan Lum, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Development Corp. KCI, however, determined that the building's facade and roughly 35 feet of its north and south walls could stand, allowing for preservation of the front lobby.

The demolition work will be done by the Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development's on-call contractor, K&K Adams.

Kimberly Clark, the BDC's executive vice president, said her group had hoped to preserve the entire building, which opened in 1904 as a vaudeville house and later housed legitimate theater and, beginning in 1941, movies. But the roof collapse and other damage, along with the razing of a building adjacent to the Mayfair on its south side, left little choice.

An "Emergency Condemnation and Demolition Notice" had been posted on the building June 15.

"If it wasn't for the public safety thing, we would have preserved the north and south walls as well," Clark said.

She remained optimistic, however, that a creative developer would be able to put a building on the site and incorporate into it the Mayfair's facade, which includes stone sculptures of people and faces, as well as the front lobby. There has been renewed interest in the building recently, she said, perhaps because "that area of Howard Street has more going on than it has for a long time.

"You could do some really cool things there," Clark said.

Johns Hopkins, executive director of preservation group Baltimore Heritage, applauded the city for its decision to retain and stabilize the front of the building, and said he had "full confidence that the front can become part of a new development in that setting."

Still, watching so much of the Mayfair fall to the wrecking ball will not be easy. "We're sad that the building was allowed to decay to the point where it became a safety hazard," he said.

The city-owned building had been vacant for a dozen years when its roof collapsed in 1998. But as recently as 2008, a developer floated plans to rehab the building and turn it into a combination of retail and apartment space.

An October 2014 fire in an adjacent building, caused by workers removing the Mayfair's marquee, further damaged the Mayfair. When that building was razed earlier this year, it left the Mayfair even more open to the elements. It also gave a clearer view of a faded sign on the building's outside south wall, containing its old name, the Auditorium.

The Mayfair site, on Howard just north of Franklin, has been a part of Baltimore's cultural fabric since at least 1870, when the Natatorium — which included a gymnasium and indoor pool — opened there. Re-opening as a theater called the Howard Auditorium in April 1891, it was extensively remodeled in 1895, opening on Sept. 30 of that year with a show from the New York Vaudeville Club, "a company of clever variety performers."

With a seating capacity of some 1,600 (1,000 on the first floor and 600 in the balcony), the rebuilt Auditorium included 12 private boxes; a stage 63 feet wide and 60 feet deep, under a proscenium arch 30 feet high; 12 dressing rooms ("with stationary washstands and other conveniences"); a "reception room" to the right of the lobby, complete with crystal chandeliers, draperies, carpets and paintings; a "cupola" box office and a total of 2,600 electric lights, controlled by two switchboards.

Manager James L. Kernan told The Sun that it would run "as a family vaudeville theater, and will look especially after the comfort of ladies and children."

The Sun apparently liked what it saw on opening night. "The building has been made a very neat and cozy one by the improvements which have taken place," an unnamed reporter wrote, "and is now one of the most attractive places of amusement in the city."

But that version of the Auditorium didn't last long, even following more improvements in 1897. The new and improved Auditorium, the one now standing on Howard Street, opened on Sept. 12, 1904 (just seven months after the Great Baltimore Fire) with a "musical farce" called "Foxy Grandpa." The $250,000 structure again proved a hit, at least with The Sun, which called it "one of the most beautiful playhouses south of New York — and, indeed, the metropolis, with its multitude of amusement houses, can show few to equal Baltimore's latest."

"The prevailing shade on the interior is green," The Sun wrote in reporting on the theater's opening, "ranging from dark at the bottom to light at the top, with dainty floral wreathing and festooms [sic] in pleasing abundance. Green marble columns support the galleries and there are no uprights to interrupt the view from any part of the house. The hangings, tapestries and carpets are in beautiful shades of green, relieved by the hangings of the boxes, which are in old rose and gold. The curtain represents a sylvan scene, and was painted in New York."

The Auditorium was repurposed as a movie theater in 1941, when its name was changed to the Mayfair. It was remodeled again in 1963, for the Baltimore premiere of "Lawrence of Arabia," when a marquee was added.

Like most of the city's movie houses, however, attendance declined through the 1960s and '70s. The last films were shown at the 700-seat Mayfair in 1986.

Chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/chriskaltsun

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