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The old Mayfair Theatre to return as a place to live

Yonah Zahler brings an expansive and grand vision to old downtown Baltimore. From Pratt Street near the Babe Ruth House to Mount Royal Avenue near Penn Station, he’s invested heavily and already has built many apartment residences around town.

Born in Toronto, Zahler is the 42-year-old father of a blended family of nine. He is now enthusiastically taking on one of Baltimore’s most challenging historic preservation riddle: how to keep and restore what’s left of Howard Street’s Mayfair Theatre.

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“We’re ready to go. The construction drawings are almost ready,” he said one day this week as he passed the Mayfair’s old box office site. “This place needs to be alive again, a vibrant atmosphere with people sitting at tables with colorful umbrellas lining up the street.”

Yonah Zahler will be incorporating the face of the old Mayfair Theatre into a new apartment complex on otherwise vacant land at Howard and Franklin Streets.
Yonah Zahler will be incorporating the face of the old Mayfair Theatre into a new apartment complex on otherwise vacant land at Howard and Franklin Streets. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Zahler is able to see the potential at the corner of Howard and West Franklin streets. The theater has sat vacant for decades and its three back walls are gone, but he forecasts there will be a strong retail presence with a local mix of art, music and food.

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The bulk of the new structure will contain 93 apartment units, parking and amenity spaces. Designed by Moseley Architects, it will be named Mayfair Place.

He already owns the adjoining Congress Hotel, the Franklin Street hotel built by philanthropist James Kernan, who was also a theater owner and something of a showman.

Kernan flanked his hotel with two playhouses, the Maryland, on Fayette Street and the Auditorium (whose name changed to the Mayfair) on Howard Street. The new Mayfair Place will be combined with the renovated adjacent Congress Hotel apartments.

(When it functioned as Auditorium theater, many actors, well known in their day, performed here — Al Jolson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Ethel Waters and Peggy Wood, for example.)

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Mayfair Place promises to bring energy to this part of downtown.

Zahler relates his story: He came to Baltimore during the recession of 2008. He began his career in general construction, building out retail spaces for Dunkin Donuts and Subway sandwich shops.

“The doors were open for someone to build creatively and build spaces at a lower cost,” he said. “With the construction knowledge and creative ability, I was able to add value to properties where others didn’t see it.”

So in 2013, he leveraged his construction company to establish himself as a rental apartment developer.

Initially he found some handsome, architecturally significant row houses in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. Located on St. Paul and Biddle streets, he purchased them and restored the facades while creating new apartments inside.

Zahler then found a burned out building at the corner of Calvert and Read streets attached to a former Baltimore Sun newspaper delivery truck garage. He bought the property and secured historic preservation permission to refurbish it, and added two stories above it as apartments.

It was a success and he moved on to a different downtown neighborhood, Ridgely’s Delight, where he did a reclamation of the old Eklof restaurant equipment complex near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Then he made apartments in surplus at University of Maryland properties along Pratt Street near Penn Street.

He then moved on to Mount Royal Avenue near Charles Street, and acquired the old Zell Packard auto showrooms that curiously included, on the top floor, the luxury apartment of silent film star Francis X. Bushman. This building now houses the offices of the Baltimore Community Foundation.

The deal included a parking lot next door. It did not remain empty for long — Zahler put up a seven-story apartment house and picked up an Urban Land Institute design prize.

Zahler says he is addressing a housing shortage.

“I am creating apartment buildings for the average median income of Baltimore City,” Zahler said. “There are choices for affordable housing and high-end housing, but for the 75 percent of the working class population, it’s harder for them to find the right product.”

He also said, “We plan to continue to build out hundreds of apartments for this demographic and help enhance the speedy growth of this great city!”

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