The curtain is about to go up on a new show for the long-abandoned Mayfair Theatre, a once glamorous North Howard Street venue that closed in 1986.
With its three back walls since demolished and its glorious beaux-arts facade the sole reminder of far better days, it looks like a relic of the World War II bombing of Berlin.
But that’s about to change.
An ambitious young developer, Yonah Zahler, who hails from Toronto and has lived in Baltimore for 19 years, and his company, Zahlco Development, is the inspiration behind a $25 million project that will be named Mayfair Place. It will be a mixed-use project of 95 residential units, commercial space and parking.
A new six-story building will rise on Howard Street on the former site of the Franklin-Delphey Hotel and will connect to what remains of the Mayfair.
The privately funded and designed project recently was given a boost by a $500,000 grant from Project Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise — better known as Project C.O.R.E. ― a partnership between the city of Baltimore and the state. Project C.O.R.E.’s focus is to “eliminate blight in Baltimore City and make way for green space, affordable and mixed-use housing, and new opportunities for business,” according to its website.
Zahler, an exuberant believer in the revitalization of the North Howard Street corridor, has put his energy and money into the successful restoration of the old Congress Hotel, which he also owns. The impressive old dowager was originally known as the Hotel Kernan and was built in 1903 by James Lawrence Kernan. He was a colorful theatrical impresario and philanthropist who lived in the hostelry until his death in 1912.
“The C.O.R.E. grant will help close the gap with construction costs,” Zahler said of the project, which is designed by Moseley Architects.
“By not using an outside developer, we’re able to hold down costs. We were delayed in starting the project because of COVID, but expect to get going in March,” Zahler said.
“We are definitely ready to start,” he said of the job that will employ 100 workers.
Zahler said projected costs for a studio apartment would be in the range of $1,400 to $1,800 a month, while a two-bedroom unit would be in the low $2,000s.
“It’ll look like a very different neighborhood when we’re finished and it’ll be good for the neighborhood,” he said. “Once it’s completed, it’ll be very positive, and this will be an up-and-coming destination.”
The Mayfair site opened in 1870 as the Natatorium on Howard just north of Franklin, which included a large indoor pool and gymnasium.
In 1891, it emerged as a theater called the Howard Auditorium. Four years later, after a major remodeling, it opened on Sept. 30 with a show from the New York Vaudeville Club, “a company of clever variety performers,” reported The Sun, which approved of the latest makeover.
“The building has been made very neat and cozy by the improvements which have taken place and is now one of the most attractive places of amusement in the city.”
A much improved new Auditorium opened Sept, 12, 1904, with “Foxy Grandpa,” a musical farce. The Sun critic spent more time gushing over the theater than “Foxy Grandpa.”
He wrote it was ”one of the most beautiful playhouses south of New York — and, indeed, the metropolis, with its multiple of amusement houses, can show few to equal Baltimore’s latest.”
When it was a legitimate house, famous performers, including acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; singers Al Jolson and Ethel Waters; comedian W.C. Fields; British actresses Gertrude Lawrence and Bea Lillie; and American actress Peggy Wood, walked its boards.
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“The New York powerhouse Shuberts booked the Auditorium/Mayfair for a while in the 1920s and sent their operettas through,” wrote Jacques Kelly, a Sun columnist, in a 2007 article. “So Baltimoreans got to see ‘The Desert Song,’ ‘My Maryland,’ ‘Countess Maritza’ and ‘Rose Marie.’”
In the early days of film, Biography and Vitagraph two-reelers were shown as “a novelty invention,” Kelly wrote, and in 1929, the theater was wired for sound to show “talking pictures.”
By 1941, its days as a venue for theater ended and it was turned into an art moderne movie theater and renamed the Mayfair. It received perhaps its final makeover in 1963, just in time for the Baltimore premiere of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
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After becoming home for 1970s and 1980s action movies, its projector finally stopped its trademark sputtering and fell silent, and the Mayfair’s curtain was rung down for the last time in 1986.
The ensuing years were unkind to the stately old theater. In 1998, its roof collapsed. Then a fire in an adjacent building, caused by workers removing the Mayfair’s marquee, caused further damage.
The Mayfair’s destiny and fate certainly seemed a doomed one until Zahler, with his vision and enthusiasm, arrived on the scene.
“We strongly believe Baltimore has a lot to offer,” he said. “We’re very hands-on. We know where we need to be.”