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Decaying Liberty Heights movie palace looks for a second act

Opened in September, 1935, the Ambassador Theater on Liberty Heights Avenue closed as a film house in 1968 and is being considered as a community arts center.
Opened in September, 1935, the Ambassador Theater on Liberty Heights Avenue closed as a film house in 1968 and is being considered as a community arts center.(Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

It’s depressing to see a neighborhood movie palace sit abandoned and watch trash collect in a lobby where patrons once entered under the neon marquee.

For decades now, Liberty Heights Avenue’s Ambassador Theater has been in that tight spot of real estate inertia. Ever so often an entrepreneur wants to tear it down, while community groups want it preserved.

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“Sometimes we don’t see opportunities in Baltimore,” said Mark S. Sissman, president of the nonprofit Healthy Neighborhoods, a group that has taken a role in the Ambassador’s preservation. “The Ambassador is an opportunity, not a vacant theater.”

Sissman says other places have redeveloped old theaters into community arts centers. He notes that the Patterson Theater, built by the same theater chain that owned the Ambassador, now flourishes as the Creative Alliance.

“But there are others, like the Weinberg Center in Frederick, the Strand in York [Pennsylvania] and the Avalon in Easton,” he said of the film houses that thrived along neighborhood and town Main Streets and now have a new life.

“The Historic Tax Credits available to the Ambassador could represent about 55 percent of its financing,” Sissman said of the cost for the project.

Film-goers in the classic era of Hollywood debated whether the Ambassador was prettier than its sibling theater, the Senator in Belvedere Square, both the work of the prolific Baltimore architect John Zink. Many agreed that the Ambassador, with its two-toned exterior brickwork and extravagant use of indirect lighting, was the more aggressively streamlined.

The Ambassador opened on Sept. 18, 1935. The attraction was Marion Davies and Dick Powell with Pat O’Brien in Warner Brothers’ “Page Miss Glory.” For years it was one of the big money-makers in the Frank Durkee Enterprises chain of movie houses.

The Howard and Forest Park neighborhoods initially fought its construction. Residents argued that the Gwynn Oak Junction area already had a movie theater, the Gwynn, and did not need another. (Curiously, the Gwynn stood almost as long as the Ambassador and was torn down with other commercial structures for the Howard Park neighborhood ShopRite.)

It was a classic not-in-my-backyard dispute. The Sun headed the debate “Movie Bill Storm Center in Council.”

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There were threatened suits and injunctions, but the Baltimore City Council voted to allow the Ambassador to proceed. Its dazzling, neon-trimmed birthday cake of an Art Deco building rose quickly. The whole project was completed in less than eight months.

Even though Howard Park residents were the storm center of opposition, many changed their minds when they saw the Ambassador’s resplendent interior fitted out with cascading chandeliers and modernistic murals. The Ambassador functioned as a neighborhood movie theater until 1968.

There was a brief attempt to make it a dinner theater in 1972. A group called the Urban Musical Theater staged a show in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Later tenants included a cosmetology school and a church. The Ambassador caught fire in 2012 and quickly descended into deeper disrepair.

The Howard Park-Forest Park communities recently have seen other public investments at the Forest Park High School and the Calvin M. Rodwell School.

The Ambassador is now owned by Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that purchased the building from the city for $100,001. The City of Baltimore earlier put the property into receivership and then spent $483,000 to stabilize its walls and expansive roof, among other costs aimed at preserving the structure.

There have been community discussions. Artspace, which develops artist studios and housing, arts centers and arts-friendly businesses, issued a draft report last year that considers options.

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“We are looking forward to advancing the Ambassador project so that it can become an active hub for creativity and creative enterprise, a resource to the surrounding neighborhoods, and a place where local arts and culture can thrive," said Tio Aiken, an official of Artspace.

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