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Cultural restoration

Sun Architecture Critic

BROOKLYN, N. Y. - There's a new Viennese restaurant on Lafayette Avenue here, and you'd better make reservations early if you want to get in on a theater night.

Called Thomas Beisl - Austrian for Thomas Bistro - the cafe is one of many businesses that have opened in recent years around the Brooklyn Academy of Music or BAM.

Owner Thomas Ferlesch, a longtime Brooklyn resident, quit his job after 11 years as executive chef of Manhattan's Cafe des Artistes to capitalize on what he calls new energy in the neighborhood - energy that he attributes to BAM.

"It's opening night [of the fall season] and I'm completely booked," Ferlesch says. "I have a full house, and it's all because of the theater."

Transformed largely by Hugh Hardy - the architect who also is overseeing the renovation of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre at 12 N. Eutaw St. - BAM is the centerpiece of an emerging arts district in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn.

The new shops and restaurants are part of the renaissance that is transforming the area. And they may provide a glimpse of what's to come on the west side of downtown Baltimore, where the 1914 Hippodrome is in the final stages of a $65 million conversion to the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, due to open in February.

Like the Hippodrome, BAM bustled with activity in the early 20th century, experienced a drop in use as its neighborhood declined, and now is being reinvigorated for 21st-century audiences.

Now BAM operates a 2,109-seat main hall, four cinemas seating more than 700 in all, a cabaret space, two rehearsal halls and another, 874-seat performance hall, the Harvey Lichtenstein Theater, two blocks away. When it opens again, the Hippodrome will have 2,276 seats in the main auditorium, plus a second space for meetings or smaller performances.

In both cases, the principal architect for most of the work was Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, a New York-based firm that specializes in restoring historic theaters.

The 71-year-old architect has been working on the Hippodrome for the past five years, and his involvement with BAM goes back to the late 1970s. Because BAM's initial phases have been complete for more than a decade, it's possible to see how patrons responded - and what implications that has for Baltimore.

As one of the first major restoration projects to get under way in Brooklyn in many years, Hardy says, BAM paved the way for the larger renewal effort, and the Hippodrome can do the same.

"It really has worked" he says of BAM. The performing arts center "brought new people to the area, new audiences. It's estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the audiences do other things while they're in the area. They make the place come alive around the clock. It really has become the rallying point."

BAM provides an example of how a cultural center can be a magnet for an emerging area, says Jeffrey Levine, vice president in charge of marketing and communications for BAM. "The purpose of culture is to bring people together. We've been very successful at drawing people, including those from other boroughs. It's something that cultural centers can offer that other things can't."

The roof of BAM's main building at 30 Lafayette Ave. is an ideal vantage point from which to take in the Brooklyn renaissance.

Within a five block radius, construction is under way on a large retail center, offices and incubator space for artists. Once-neglected brownstones are being restored by middle class homeowners, and prices are rising. Plans are in the works for new housing, a public radio station, library and art galleries.

The area now has its own redevelopment authority, the BAM Local Development Corp., which seeks arts-related uses for underutilized properties. Architects for future projects include luminaries such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Enrique Norten and Diller & Scofidio.

No one claims that BAM alone has turned the area around, but it's clear that it played a major role. That's a source of pride to its director, Baltimore native Karen Brooks Hopkins.

Beyond Manhattan

"The idea was to create a new center for arts and culture outside the borough of Manhattan," she says. "This building is one of the greatest theaters in the country. It's bringing 400,000 people a year to Brooklyn, and we're delighted to have the opportunity to restore it."

BAM's story may sound familiar to those who know about the rise and decline of the Hippodrome, one of Baltimore's early vaudeville playhouses.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music was founded in 1861, but its first home burned to the ground in 1903. The present building dates from 1908 and was designed by Herts and Tallant, the same architects who created the Lyceum and New Amsterdam theaters in Manhattan. Just as the Hippodrome was a key stop for vaudevillians, BAM drew the stars of the opera world, such as Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar.

The academy's fortunes mirrored Brooklyn's decline, which was fueled by flight to the outer suburbs and loss of jobs. The most symbolic blow was the Dodgers' move to California in 1958. Though it never closed, the academy saw less and less activity after World War II and the advent of television. Performing spaces became makeshift classrooms for language and martial arts. There was talk of razing the building for tennis courts.

In 1967, the academy appointed Harvey Lichtenstein as executive director, and he set it on a different course. Under his leadership, the main theater was restored as a setting for dramatic productions and opera. A second performing space was converted to four movie theaters. Rehearsal space was built on the roof. A ballroom was transformed to a restaurant and live music venue, called the BAMcafe.

The multiphase renovation, carried out from 1978 to the present, revived the historic academy. It came to be known as a place where patrons could see high quality performances that no one else was doing. That attracted patrons from Manhattan seeking edgy, experimental theater. Big-name directors and actors wanted to be involved, and that drew even bigger crowds.

Increased business

The theater's renewal has brought life to the surrounding area as well. At Junior's, a popular restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, employees say they can tell whenever BAM has a performance.

"It helps business tremendously," said Mary Blevins, a waitress for the past 42 years. "When they have a show, people come here first. It makes a difference."

As the theater revived, the surrounding neighborhood has changed in other, incremental ways. Residents and business owners say it feels safer, and doesn't seem so rundown. "The area looks better," said Desmond Reid, who owns a bookstore called Dare Books directly across the street from the theater. "There's less crime, because of the emphasis on development. Crime fighting is part of it."

"Ten years ago, it was really frightening to walk around BAM," said Sandy Sawotka, the group's director of communications. "Today, the area is much safer, and more people want to live nearby."

While they're pleased to draw Manhattanites, directors say BAM has made an effort to cultivate audiences from Brooklyn as well. They opened the BAMcafe as a venue for local jazz musicians and others, and they built the cinema complex for local moviegoers.

They recently staged an event called CandyBAM, hiring Brazilian artist Vik Muniz to transform the building into a gigantic gingerbread house while it's undergoing restoration, complete with gumdrops, peppermint sticks and licorice candies. The edible artwork underscored that BAM is a treat for the immediate neighborhood - "a place of fantasy and joy," as Muniz put it - as well as the region at large.

BAM also acquired the Majestic, a former vaudeville house two blocks from the main building, and reopened it for dramatic productions. The look is unfinished, like a ruin, and it provides a memorable setting for performances.

Finally, BAM has continued to restore its original building. This fall, it is completing $8.6 million worth of improvements, including a new cornice. As with the Hippodrome, the building is publicly owned, and work is being completed with a combination of public and private funds. BAM's first director, Harvey Lichtenstein, has moved on to head the nonprofit group in charge of revitalizing the surrounding area.

Part of BAM's success is that its directors have cultivated patrons in Brooklyn, Hardy says. "They believe that you don't have to import people from Manhattan. It can be its own audience."

BAM's growth hasn't helped everyone, though. Some merchants have been forced to move from the area because landlords increased their rent. Others have not seen a significant increase in walk-in traffic or sales.

Reid opened his bookstore across from BAM because he was impressed by its mission. He hasn't seen an increase in business as a result of the performance center, but he can afford to stay because he owns the building.

"There's no doubt that overall the area has gotten better," he says. "It's gotten better for the middle class and the upper class. I can't say it's gotten better for the lower-class residents who have been displaced or have a higher cost of living."

Still, turnover in commercial space means opportunity for others moving in. Down the block at Thomas Beisl, Ferlesch already has plans to expand by opening a 52-seat wintergarden.

"Without BAM, I would be history," he says.

BAM has been successful because its productions are first rate and that has drawn people to the area, which in turn has attracted new business, Hardy says. He adds that though BAM is not the largest property owner, it has given the area its identity and set a positive tone for further development.

The architect believes the same scenario can unfold in Baltimore with the Hippodrome's opening. And, in some ways, it may happen more quickly than it did in Brooklyn because the France-Merrick center is opening all at once rather than in phases. "I don't think people have any idea what's happening in this part of town," he says of Baltimore's west side. "They don't know how much it's changing. I think they're going to be absolutely amazed."

But as with any new or restored theater, "you have to build an audience," he says. "You have to get people talking about it: 'What did you do last night?' 'I went to the Hippodrome.' With such a large seating capacity, it's not going to take long for the word to spread."

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