A dramatic rebirth

The show begins long before the curtain rises.

That's all one needs to know to appreciate the dramatic transformation of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre, which reopens Tuesday after a $62 million restoration and modernization.

The architects and artisans who labored for months to rescue the historic theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. didn't simply return it to its original appearance, though that certainly was done. They made it the centerpiece of a larger environment in which every inch works to prepare audiences for the Broadway-style performances and other shows that they have come to see.

The result is an urban entertainment center with the splendor and opulence one associates with great theaters of the past and a backstage that can accommodate the most elaborate traveling productions. Spacious lobbies and lounges offer perches where patrons can people-watch during intermission and linger after the show to savor impressive views of the city. Though less than five blocks from the venue it's replacing - the 1967 Morris A. Mechanic Theatre - it's a quantum leap forward in terms of ambience, amenities and technical capabilities.

To audiences starved for a first-class performing space in downtown Baltimore, the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center represents the happiest of endings - a grand old theater that has been made infinitely more beautiful and functional for today's audiences and performers. Move over, National Aquarium and Oriole Park. Baltimore's newest urban renaissance star is born.

  • The primary challenge of reviving the Hippodrome was the need to take a theater that was designed for the vaudeville era and make it work for the video age, without destroying the character and detail that made it worth saving in the first place.

    As designed by the noted Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, the richly embellished auditorium was always the building's best feature, a riot of garlands and putti and plaster ornamentation that provided a lavish backdrop for any production.

    But the original Hippodrome didn't have the creature comforts that today's theater patrons expect, from generous lobbies and concessions stands to adequate parking and restrooms. It also didn't have the back-of--the-house facilities needed for contemporary touring productions, including loading docks for 18-wheelers; high-tech lighting and sound equipment; and ample dressing and rehearsal rooms.

    The solution from the design team - headed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA) of New York, with Murphy & Dittenhafer during the preliminary phase and Schamu Machowski Greco on construction administration - was to make the theater part of a block-long complex that would contain all the features that the original theater lacked.

    Donated to the state in 1997, the Hippodrome is one of three historic buildings that have been connected and combined with other properties to create one cohesive performing arts center that fills most of the area bounded by Eutaw, Fayette, Paca and Baltimore streets. The project was carried out as a joint venture of the Hippodrome Foundation, Maryland Stadium Authority and Clear Channel Entertainment.

    Going outside the shell of the Hippodrome allowed the architects to restore the auditorium to its original appearance, and then to add contemporary features around the perimeter. It's not unlike Oriole Park, where the old-fashioned seating bowl and playing field are surrounded by modern-day pedestrian concourses with their requisite vending areas and restrooms.

  • What makes the France-Merrick Center particularly impressive is the way that the architects combined new and old to play up the historic theater. Although the transformation includes restoration of the three historic structures, more than 60 percent of the project actually was new construction. In making changes, the architects didn't upstage the original buildings, as some designers might have done. Instead, they created a hierarchy of spaces that build up to the clear highlight of the project, the painstakingly restored 1914 auditorium.

    This approach is characteristic of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, a national leader in theater preservation. Its architects maintain that the job of theater architecture is largely to create an "aura of anticipation" before the performance begins, a sort of architectural drum-roll leading up to the event on stage. For them, the show begins when patrons approach the theater.

    "It's a total experience," says architect Hugh Hardy, principal in charge of the Hippodrome transformation for HHPA. "People forget that. They think the show begins when the performance starts, but that's not so."

    Lamb knew that secret, and adorned his auditorium with cartouches, medallions, frescoes and many other touches designed to transport people mentally and emotionally from the everyday world to the world of the theater. The restoration architects wisely realized that his jewel should be brought back as closely as possible and shown off for maximum effect.

    Just as they want the architecture to prepare people to enjoy the performance, they wanted the new construction to prepare people to appreciate the restored auditorium at the center. The result is a carefully orchestrated sequence of spaces that not only guides patrons from the street to the lobby to their seats, but also makes Lamb's auditorium the clear star of the project.

    "There's something endemic in the profession about disrespect, almost, for the work of others," Hardy said in a 1998 interview. "You know, you're alive and it's your turn and trash the past, the hell with it. I don't think of architecture that way. ... I think of it as a continuity and a respect that's required for what other people have done."

    Relating old to new is one of the great challenges of contemporary design, he said. "In a time when no building form or material is too unusual to be used in architecture, the idea of continuity, of the relationship between current and traditional ideas of design, is all but absent. But architecture is a language of long standing. However radical the new, we continue to live in the old, moving toward a future surrounded by layers of past opinion. ... Restoring theaters both honors tradition by returning audiences to the ritual of performance and reveals how much they have changed."

  • Two factors allowed the architects to pursue such a respectful restoration strategy: the Hippodrome was located in the middle of the block rather than on one end, and the adjacent buildings were available for recycling as part of the project.

    Besides the theater, designers made use of two former bank buildings that were directly north of it: the Western National Bank, constructed in 1890 and given a new facade in 1912, and the Eutaw Savings Bank, built in 1887 and expanded in 1911. The stadium authority also acquired a less ornate building south of the theater and made it part of the art center's footprint.

    The architects preserved the two bank buildings for use as lobbies and multipurpose rooms. But they chose to raze the less distinctive building to the south and create a new corner structure containing the box office, south lobby and a bistro-style cafe. They also designed a new stage house and loading dock off Baltimore Street, and provided a direct link to the 975-car, state-owned garage at Fayette and Paca streets.

    By connecting the Hippodrome to its neighbors, Hardy and his colleagues provided all the spaces that the Hippodrome lacked, without cutting into the theater itself. By incorporating properties on either side of the theater, for example, the architects were able to supplement its original minuscule lobby with two generous side lobbies, as well as elevators, coatrooms, and restrooms that were not available before.

    Another significant change to the Hippodrome was the insertion of a gently curving wall just inside the Eutaw Street entrance, to separate the lobby from the auditorium. The gentle curve of this "feature wall" leads people to the new side lobbies and doubles as a gallery wall featuring nostalgic images of the Hippodrome and the celebrities who performed there, including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman and Red Skelton.

    In effect, patrons walk from the streets of 2004 Baltimore through the 1914 facade of the theater to lobby spaces that are clearly transitional and then into the restored 1914 auditorium. It's a subtle move, but one that helps knit the different buildings into a coherent ensemble. One clear similarity between the Hippodrome and Oriole Park is that these new lobbies offer views of the cityscape, just as the stadium concourses do. One of the most memorable is the view from the south lobby toward the crenellated top of the Bromo Seltzer Tower, bathed in blue light at night.

    At every step of the way, the architects have left clues that allow visitors to distinguish what's new from what's old as they move through the performing arts center. The handsome brick building on the corner echoes the window rhythms of older buildings on the block without in any way overpowering them. Glass links fill gaps between the historic buildings, making it easy to tell where they stop and new construction starts. Stair railings in the new lobbies are made of glass and metal - clearly contemporary. There is no effort to deceive or mislead people about what's authentic. The new construction takes note of the past but is clearly of its own time.

  • Because they added the support spaces in buildings that were all around the original theater, the designers were free to approach the auditorium itself as a pure restoration. That meant replicating details that had been stripped away or lost over the years, and using colors and materials consistent with the original ones.

    As built by Marion Pearce and Phillip Scheck, the Hippodrome was not narrow and deep the way many theaters were at the time. To fit onto the shallow Eutaw Street parcel they owned, they made the theater wide and shallow, and gave its balcony nearly as many seats as its orchestra level. The configuration and slope of the seats have not changed, but virtually every surface of the auditorium was repaired, repainted or refinished in some way.

    Patrons are likely to marvel at the cherubic faces high above the stage, the proscenium arch with its swags and rosettes, the two giant turbans that frame the stage, ornate recreations of the six opera boxes, the delicate stenciling on the ceiling and the multicolored end standards that cap each row of seats.

    Conrad Schmitt Studios lovingly restored an allegorical mural above the stage. Replica light fixtures give off the same amber glow as the ones in 1914 did. New seats, carpeting and curtains allude to the theater's original decor and complement the plasterwork so carefully restored by Hayles & Howe.

    The architects made changes, to be sure. The stage is larger than before - 108 feet wide by 50 feet deep and seven stories high - and has a new orchestra pit with an elevator lift. Dressing rooms and rehearsal areas are conveniently tucked below stage level.

    Keen observers may wince at the dozen or so holes cut in Vincent Maragliotti's fine mural above the stage. Designers say that they were needed to hang rigging from the ceiling and that they have been "painted out" to be as unnoticeable as possible, but one wonders whether such punctures would have been tolerated by, say, the landmarks commission in New York City.

    On the whole, though, the effect is nothing short of miraculous. It's such a seamless, sumptuous environment that patrons may have trouble deciding which of the seats they like most. Orchestra seats generally are preferred but, in this case, the balcony seats enable patrons to take in the full sweep of the restored ceiling. Either way, the room feels surprisingly intimate for a theater with so many seats.

    That's helped by the fact that the theater's original colors were fairly subdued compared with those of some theaters - a warm palette of beige, burgundy and taupe. Based on the historic paint analysis by Matthew Mosca, "this room had a remarkably small range of color," Hardy said. The owners "subsequently repainted the place and it got very colorful. But originally it was more about light and shade than it was about color."

    Because the tones are relatively muted, stepping from the side lobbies into the auditorium is almost like walking into an old sepia-tone print. There was some concern before construction began that going back to such a limited color range might make the room too bland, but the silver leaf accents and three-dimensional figures give it plenty of punch. This auditorium may not be as exuberant as some theaters, but that only reinforces the impression of walking back through time. And from the outside, with its re-created entrance canopy and vertical sign lighted at night, it really looks like a vaudeville palace again.

  • A city's renaissance is based on many factors. In the 1970s, Baltimore built office towers and a convention center that brought more business travelers to the city. In the 1980s, the retail pavilions of Harborplace and watery wonders of the National Aquarium attracted tourists. Starting in the 1990s, new baseball and football stadiums lured sports fans.

    This decade, culture is leading the way. With 2,286 seats, the Hippodrome won't bring as many people downtown on any given night as Oriole Park, but the cumulative effect is still considerable - with more than 400,000 patrons expected the first year.

    As much as the designers may insist that the architecture is only the lead-in to the main event, their work suggests otherwise. If anything can convince a skeptical and change-resistant public to visit the west side and support theater in downtown Baltimore, this inspired intermingling of old and new has the power to do so.

    There's no question that the lineup and quality of productions will be the biggest keys to luring audiences downtown and bringing them back for more. There have been many memorable shows at 12 N. Eutaw Street, and the stage is set for many more. But the first great performance at the rejuvenated Hippodrome is the transformation of the theater itself.

    For complete coverage of of the rebirth of the Hippodrome Theatre, and to view a gallery of photographs, check out The Sun's Web site:

    What's on stage

    Three Broadway shows - two of which are new to Baltimore - will play the new Hippodrome Theatre this season:

  • The Producers (Feb. 10-March 14): This musical adaptation of the Mel Brooks movie, in which a pair of crooked theater producers set out to make a surefire flop, won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards.

  • Les Miserables (April 13-25): Among the first and best of the mega-musicals, this adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel remains a compelling study of the sometimes narrow line between good and evil.

  • Mamma Mia! (May 11-30): From the title number to "Dancing Queen," nearly two dozen ABBA songs fill out this slim but fun tale of a young woman's search for her father. For tickets: Call 410-481-SEAT, go online to (both include a service charge), or stop by the Hippodrome box office.

    Theater information

  • Parking: Besides Fayette Street and Atrium garages, two more parking facilities are within one block of the theater - Central garage (Baltimore Street between Eutaw and Howard) and Redwood garage (corner of Eutaw and Redwood streets).

  • Restrooms: Twelve total, six for men and six for women. Located on all three levels.

  • Hipp Cafe: On Baltimore near Eutaw, open from breakfast through dinner for theater-goers and the general public. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., then 5 p.m. to one hour after final curtain. Closed most Mondays and on weekends when the theater is dark. Call 410-625-1401 (reservations not accepted).

  • Information: 410-837-7400 or

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