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Remembering the 'Alamo,' aka Lord Baltimore Theater

Mike Seipp, executive director of the Southwest Partnership, outside the former Lord Baltimore theater at 1110 West Baltimore Street, which his organization is seeking to purchase. They hope to make the theater a destination point for entertainment and learning for the community if the building is salvageable.
Mike Seipp, executive director of the Southwest Partnership, outside the former Lord Baltimore theater at 1110 West Baltimore Street, which his organization is seeking to purchase. They hope to make the theater a destination point for entertainment and learning for the community if the building is salvageable. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Some neighbors have coined a name for a concrete-clad landmark in the Poppleton community.

They call the long closed Lord Baltimore Theater the "Alamo" because this old vaudeville and film house has a curved rooftop that somewhat resembles the Texas historical site.

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It may never be as well known as the Alamo, but the beleaguered Lord Baltimore Theater could receive a boost of local recognition in the next few years.

A neighborhood coalition, the Southwest Partnership, has signed a preliminary purchase agreement for the structure, and is exploring an estimated $6 million makeover to turn the Lord Baltimore into a community cultural arts center.

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"There are options with a building this size," said partnership executive director Michael Seipp. "We could have art studios and music venues for soul and jazz revues.

"But the real agenda is that a reopened and renovated Lord Baltimore could enhance the quality of life for seven neighborhoods," said Seipp, whose group represents Poppleton, Franklin Square, Mount Clare, Pigtown, Union Square, Barre Circle and Hollins Roundhouse.

Theater historian Robert K. Headley once wrote that, when built, the Lord Baltimore was the largest theater — 1,000 seats — in downtown.

Seipp said he realizes reclamation of the large brick movie house in the 1100 block West Baltimore Street will not be easy. If a structural analysis reveals it to be too financially daunting, the partnership will not pursue the project. If it is deemed feasible, fundraising will begin.

In the meantime, hopes are high for the Lord Baltimore — and for its surrounding neighborhoods, which seem poised for a revival.

"The stars seemed to have aligned in right place this year for Southwest Baltimore," Seipp said.

He notes several actions that seem to bode well for the area: Investor Scott Plank, brother of the UnderArmour president, recently purchased more than 30 properties around the historic Hollins Market; Home Free USA is renovating houses on West Fayette Street behind the theater; and the old Lion Brothers embroidery emblem building, at Hollins and Poppleton streets, is being handsomely renovated by Enterprise Homes.

In addition, real estate investor Cecil Clarke — who owns the Lord Baltimore Theater — has renovated a neighboring section of West Baltimore Street.

The largest single investor along West Baltimore Street is the University of Maryland's Biopark. Its new 250,000-square-foot office and tech space is slated for Baltimore and Poppleton streets.

Seipp feels a redevelopment of the vaudeville-film house could be a unifying force for the neighborhoods, creating a place where Southwest Baltimore residents can gather and have a good time as they did a century ago.

At its Nov. 24, 1913 debut, The Baltimore Sun wrote that: "The Lord Baltimore opened last night in a blaze of glory and a throng of enthusiastic patrons."

The theater is a year older than the Hippodrome, and both were once owned by the same cinema pioneers, Marion Scott Pearce and Phillip Scheck.

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Pearce was fascinated by electricity as a young man. He took correspondence courses and wound up being head of electricity for United Railways, the firm that operated Baltimore's streetcars. He befriended Scheck, a fellow streetcar worker, and the two soon turned their interests from electricity to early cinema.

The Sun wrote that in their early operations, "Pearce would turn the crank that operated the machine and Schenk would sing while the reels were changed."

By 1912, when they bought the West Baltimore Street land for the Lord Baltimore, they had pictures houses, or nickelodeons, in Baltimore, Washington, Frederick and West Virginia.

The Lord Baltimore, after its 1913 opening, went on to enjoy many years as a neighborhood movie house. By the 1930s, its owners spruced it up with a dazzling neon marquee outfitted in the Calvert family arms. The place closed for a few weeks in 1932, but reopened that August with an animal film featuring Frank Buck, "Bring 'Em Back Alive."

There's a black-and-white photo of the Lord Baltimore in 1941 with the marquee proclaiming a film that one might relate to the Olympic Summer Games that opened yesterday. The feature that day? "Charlie Chan in Rio."

"That marquee has to go up again," Seipp said.

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