At age 100, the commercial building at 120 W. North Ave. has enjoyed prosperity and suffered humiliation. It's now soon to become an arts center in the Station North neighborhood, whose transformation I've been watching for the past few years.
Perhaps its worst hour happened in 2012, when the Fire Department ordered it closed. Inspectors took one look at the outdated 1914 wiring and said, "Shut it down." Its main tenant, the Single Carrot Theatre, promptly moved out.
"The electrical box was like something out of a Dr. Frankenstein movie," said Laurens "Mac" MacLure, director of the Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., who gave a tour of the roomy structure this week, as his group has been completing plans for a $6 million upgrade.
Indeed, the system of fuses and circuit breakers did bespeak 1914. But so did the rest of the structure, one of many in Station North that have languished undisturbed for decades.
Located just across North Avenue from the Maryland Institute College of Art's recently renovated Fred Lazarus Building, 120 North now has a new name, the Motor House. Built in 1914 as the Eastwick Motor Co., it was an early Ford dealership. By the 1920s, when North Avenue functioned as a busy and convenient commercial area, the W.C. Cole dealership was selling Graham-Paige vehicles.
Automobile sales evaporated from the neighborhood nearly 40 years ago. At the end, 120 North was offering used cars. By the mid-1970s, the place housed Lombard Office Equipment. What seemed like all of Baltimore's beaten and battered used metal office furniture went to be sold here.
"The beauty is nobody has messed up the interior," said Amy Bonitz, the project's director. "Some of the wonderful features we've uncovered include the original [auto] showroom with a mezzanine where the managers could oversee the work happening throughout the first floor, including the rooms where the sales agreements were finalized.
"The front facade also contains beautiful leaded-glass windows with large, pivot windows that will be fully restored," said Bonitz. "The third floor is also a wide-open space with large skylights where mechanics used to work on cars. We will be saving and preserving the old freight elevator that brought the cars up to the upper floors for servicing as well."
The Baltimore Arts Realty Corp. is a newly formed nonprofit arts space developer that purchased the building in August 2013. It envisions the building as an arts hub for Station North.
"Artists are attracted to places that are unsafe because they are cheap," said MacLure. "We want to become the new model of providing affordable, safe and sustainable space for artists."
One of the ways that the Baltimore Arts Realty hopes to make their project solvent concerns the former auto showroom on the ground floor.
"I see this as becoming a wonderful restaurant space," said MacLure. "The rent from it could help subsidize artists' studios upstairs."
He told me the goal is to preserve affordable space for working artists so they are not forced out as the neighborhood improves and real estate values increase.
The Motor House, only three stories tall, has some amazing views from those expansive industrial-style windows. I stood at them and looked across the Jones Falls Valley near Penn Station and watched traffic pass over the Howard Street Bridge and listened to trains sound their whistles as they negotiated the long tunnel under West Baltimore.
Then there is Graffiti Alley, an amazing network of changing artworks in the outdoor studio at the rear of the Motor House. Its rear walls form a brick canvas for some of the city's most adventuresome painters, with graffiti changing on a nightly basis.