Nkemakolam Nwaigwe, an artist known as Qué Pequeño and a former Bell Foundry tenant, says, "This place saved my life because I was on the verge of homelessness when I was offered a studio space over here." (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
More than two months after the Bell Foundry was shuttered due to safety violations, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society has returned to its rehearsal space in the Station North building after receiving permission from city agencies.
The production troupe held a general meeting Sunday on the building's first floor, where BROS previously rehearsed, said the group's artistic director, Aran Keating.
Since December, members of BROS and a contractor have worked to address the issues that led to the Bell Foundry's closing, Keating said. (Responding to a complaint, city officials closed the arts space days after a fire in an Oakland, Calif., building used for art studios killed 36 people. Some Bell Foundry tenants had been living at the artist workspace -- which is not permitted for habitation -- according to city officials.)
On Thursday, a fire inspector walked through and approved BROS' first-floor space for rehearsal use again, Baltimore Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams confirmed in an email Tuesday. Baltimore Housing acting commissioner Michael Braverman said in an email his agency approved a use and occupancy permit on the Bell Foundry's first floor. (The second floor and basement are still not permitted for use, Adams wrote.)
Keating said the biggest hurdle to re-entering the space was proving to the city that squatters would not return to the building. The second floor, where some artists lived before the shuttering, is now empty, he said. The basement, which previously held music performances in an unpermitted space, is now used only for storage.
"That was the biggest across-the-board thing that everybody was worried about, including the fire inspector," Keating said. "He was like, 'I don't want to see any messing around in here.'"
Another obstacle was untangling and rerouting electrical work, removing an improperly installed furnace from the second floor and updating fire-safety equipment like extinguishers, smoke detectors and exit signs, Keating said. Members of BROS contributed to the labor, and he estimates the group spent approximately $1,200 to help bring the building up to code.
BROS' lease with the Bell Foundry, which is owned by JBL Calvert LLC and Calvert Lofts LLC, ends Dec. 1, Keating said. The group is raising money in hopes of purchasing a permanent home, but Keating expects they'll need a "transitional space" in December because the permanent space will likely "take a couple years from this point to really get off the ground."
Without its Bell Foundry space, BROS was forced to delay upcoming productions, Keating said. "The Terrible Secret of Lunastus" was scheduled for the spring but will now take place this fall, he said, while the following production, "Mortified!," will now debut next spring.
While Keating hopes returning to the rehearsal space will bring some stability to BROS, he said any celebratory feelings over the news were short-lived.
"We're sort of back where we started, so it feels weird," Keating said. "We're really trying to keep the focus on the long-term struggle to say, 'Hey, we ultimately aren't going to remain at the Bell Foundry ... so let's really put something together that's more long-lasting, something we know we can control so we don't have to be in this situation again.'"
So far, BROS has raised nearly $24,000 for its new home, according to the online campaign. On March 11, BROS will host its annual fundraising gala, the Swanktacular, at 2640 Space in Charles Village.