From the entrance to Baltimore's Clipper Industrial Park, most visitors see a haunting symbol of the past: the charred remains of a once-bustling artists' colony, nearly wiped out by one of the worst fires in recent city history.
But owner Bill Poloway looks through that entrance and sees the future.
He not only pictures a flourishing arts village, with sculptors, painters, potters and metalworkers, but also a Hollywood-style back lot with a giant sound stage, set design and fabrication shops, dressing rooms, editing rooms, prop storage and a commissary.
This full-blown production center would serve film companies when they shoot major motion pictures in Maryland, and it could help make the Hampden-Woodberry section of Baltimore the local equivalent of New York's Tribeca neighborhood, a center for actors, filmmakers and others in the arts.
Poloway's emerging vision for the reconstruction of Clipper Park comes 19 months after a nine-alarm fire raced through the former iron foundry and displaced nearly two dozen artists and small businesses there. Some lost their life's work. A 25-year-old firefighter, Eric Schaefer, lost his life battling the blaze.
Poloway, whose family has owned the property since 1972, vowed to rebuild a week after the fire, in September 1995. He has spent the last year and a half trying to determine exactly what that would entail and how to pay for it.
"There's just not a lot of demand for mid-19th- century factories," he admitted during a recent tour of the property. But "there are a lot of pluses here. We know there's a market for something. The question is, what? A big store, or something more challenging?"
Poloway is working with the Clipper Park Arts Center, a nonprofit artists' group, to develop a master plan for the 17-acre property at 3500 Clipper Road, located along the banks of a stream near where Interstate 83 slices through the Jones Falls Valley.
Surprisingly picturesque for an urban location, the land is on the opposite side of the light rail tracks from Meadow Mill, one-time home of the London Fog raincoat factory, and the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. Less than half a block from a light-rail stop, it's a stone's throw from the Baltimore Zoo.
About 20 artists now occupy various spaces within Clipper Park, compared to 50 before the fire. Poloway has identified areas where additional artists' space could be constructed. But he believes the key to the project's economic viability is attracting a more diverse mix of tenants, so all the rebuilding costs don't fall on the artists.
He has focused on the film industry because more and more major motion pictures are being shot on location in Maryland, and companies often need permanent facilities for interior filming and post-production work.
Recent movies shot locally include, "Home for the Holidays," "12 Monkeys," "Major League II" and "Absolute Power." A movie starring Tim Allen is expected to begin shooting later this month.
In some cases, filmmakers come to Maryland because the script calls for it, as in the case of Barry Levinson's classics, such as "Diner" and "Avalon," or the movie made from Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist." The NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street," has been filming in Fells Point for several years.
In other cases, Maryland settings double for other places. Mount Vernon Square became a Parisian park in the soon-to-be released "Washington Square." The Walters Art Gallery stood in for Washington's Corcoran Art Gallery in "Absolute Power." A Mount Washington estate became an Ohio residence in "Guarding Tess."
Though minutes from downtown, Clipper Park is a secure, out-of-the-way setting that already has the feel of a Hollywood back lot and is large enough to accommodate the 300 to 500 people who might work there.
"We believe it could be an attractive location for the state's film industry," said Al Barry, a development consultant to Poloway. "The buildings are interconnected, and some have very high ceilings and clear spans. A street runs down the middle, and there's a large parking area for trailers. It has a wonderful natural and historic character, which would make it a desirable workplace."
Poloway and Barry explained that many film companies come to Maryland to shoot outdoor scenes but return to Los Angeles or elsewhere to shoot interior scenes in a sound stage. If Baltimore had a wider range of facilities for indoor filming, they said, film companies likely would stay in town longer, pumping even more money into the local economy.
Baltimore has several private operations -- Flite 3 Recordings Inc., Sheffield Audio-Visual Productions and Spicer Productions -- that are used for filming of movies and commercials. But the largest sound stage in town is less than 10,000 square feet -- relatively small by industry standards.
Poloway said Clipper Park has an old foundry that could be converted to a sound stage with about 27,000 square feet of space. Although the roof would have to be raised, he said, it would be Maryland's largest sound stage, ideal for a variety of productions.
Nearby buildings could be renovated for related uses, from dressing rooms to scenery shops. The total cost could be $10 million or more.
Michael Styer, director of the Maryland Film Office, toured Clipper Park last week to learn about Poloway's vision.
Although the plans aren't far enough along to make any final decisions, Styer said, the property "presents some interesting possibilities. It has a wonderful charm to it."
Martha Craig, acting director of the Clipper Park Arts Center, said she supports Poloway's idea of creating a film production facility on property that the artists do not need. "It has an incredible amount of potential."
Built as a foundry
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Clipper Industrial Park was built as an iron foundry and machine shop serving mills along the banks of the Jones Falls. It was started by Robert Poole, an Irishman who came to the city in 1818 and formed a partnership with German H. Hunt.
The sprawling complex dates to the 1850s, when a series of granite and brick buildings rose at Woodberry. Soon an entire village filled up with smitheries, boiler shops and pattern-making rooms.
For more than a century Poole and Hunt's Union Works, and its successors, ranked among Baltimore's busiest industries. At its peak, the business employed some 400 workers who made steam engines, locomotive parts, textile machinery, hydraulic cylinders, gristmill water-power turbines and, during the Civil War, cannonballs. In the 1860s, the furnaces melted pig iron to cast the 36 columns and their brackets for the U.S. Capitol.
The buildings were eventually acquired by the Franklin Balmar Co., which 50 years ago was a subcontractor on the Manhattan Project's atomic bomb. In 1972, Poloway's father bought the property for a cabinet-making business and leased extra space to artists and small commercial ventures. Poloway assumed control of it when his father died in 1987.
More film facilities
Styer, the film office director, said the state has been able to attract film companies primarily because of its wide range of locations. But if it had additional sound stages and related facilities, he said, it might be that much more appealing. Just this month, the state legislature increased the marketing budget of the Maryland Film Office -- from $267,000 for 1996-1997 to $667,000 for 1997-1998 -- to step up those efforts.
Styer noted that Wilmington, N.C., profited tremendously when a sound stage was constructed there more than a decade ago. Now other cities and regions are creating similar facilities, often by converting large buildings such as airplane hangars or warehouses.
In San Francisco, for example, part of the old Presidio military base has been converted to a film production facility. Chelsea Piers in New York is used extensively for filmmaking. And now Philadelphia is exploring plans to convert its old convention center downtown into a sound stage.
Styer said Maryland has attracted an average of three to four major motion pictures and television shows a year, including "Homicide." He said they inject between $40 million and $60 million into the state economy.
Styer said crews can spend between $500,000 and $2 million a week when they're in the area. If they spent 12 weeks shooting on location, they might inject anywhere from $6 million to $24 million into the local economy. If they remained to shoot interior scenes as well, he said,they might spend another six weeks in the area, potentially representing another $3 million to $12 million economic boost.
But "It's not simply a case of build-it-and-they-will-come," he warned. "Major motion pictures don't come here for the sound stage. They come for the location. That's what we're trying to sell." At the same time, he said, "a sound stage is another thing to market. It could help."
Judging from requests his office has received, Styer said, producers typically look for soundproof buildings with high ceilings, ample power and 25,000 to 50,000 square feet of column-free space. They also need good access and lots of parking space for trailers and other large vehicles, he said.
Designing to begin
Poloway has hired the architectural firm of Cho, Wilks and Benn to create a master plan for the property, with Whitman, Requardt and Associates as the lead engineer.
He and Barry said they hope to begin the design process in May and come up with a final plan in four to six months. If Poloway can obtain financing in time, construction could begin in 1998 and be completed in phases.
Poloway's ability to obtain financing will be a key, Barry said, because a project such as this is not the same as a straightforward real-estate transaction. Because of the changing nature of the filmmaking business, the state has no guarantee how many productions will come to the area in any given period. As a result, financing will have to be structured creatively -- and some form of public assistance may be needed.
"The state has to decide if an investment of this type would bring a return to the state," Barry said. If the state does not became a major funding source, he said, Poloway would seek private financing from backers.
Styer said it's too early to say whether the state would participate in any way, but he has encouraged Poloway's group to keep refining its plans.
Kathi Ash, a free-lance location manager who has worked with numerous movies filmed in Maryland, said the Clipper Park facility sounds like "production heaven."
It always enhances the appeal of a city to have "more than one great sound-stage option," she said. "This is a very competitive industry. It would be an asset to the state to have the additional space."
The Clipper Park Arts Center, meanwhile, is negotiating with a design team headed by New York artist James Wines of SITE Inc., and the Baltimore architecture firm of KCM Architects, to plan its portion of the park.
Craig, the center's acting director, said the artists would like to renovate their current spaces so they are more safe, functional and efficient. In addition, she said, the group would like to construct a new building nearby to provide more studios, workshops, educational space, gallery space and possibly even a cafe.
The state legislature has allocated $200,000 to help fund the rebuilding effort, a figure that the arts group is seeking to match through private donations. That would help fund the first phase of a project whose total cost has not been determined.
Craig said she envisions the arts center becoming an attraction for the general public. She noted that the Baltimore Zoo is exploring plans to create a new entrance that would be accessible from the Hampden-Woodberry light-rail stop, and that entrance would take people right past the entrance of Clipper Park.
The arts center could take advantage of any additional zoo traffic by creating a picnic area, nature walk, sculpture garden, outdoor performing space or other public spaces as part of its reconstructed village, she suggested.
Craig noted that Baltimore has had several mill conversions and other projects that were originally aimed at artists, but the rents turned out to be so expensive that artists couldn't afford to stay there. The spaces filled up with design firms and other companies that could pay the rent. Craig doesn't want that to happen at Clipper Park.
"We're looking for a way to generate income that would make it affordable for artists so we don't need to turn it into a Torpedo Factory, where you have high rents and a sanitized version of what making art is all about," she said, referring to the multilevel arts center created inside the shell of an old torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va.
"I know it's going to take a lot of money to bring these buildings up-to-date, but whatever happens here has to justify itself," she added. "We want to have a vehicle that can generate income to support the artists' studio space, and we're looking at the best way to do that."
Poloway is eager to get under way.
"This was a real community at one point," he said. "It's still a community. I love these buildings. I'll do whatever I can to see them go on to the next generation in the best shape possible."
Eight local artists will hold an open house today at Clipper Industrial Park, 3500 Clipper Road, as part of the School 33 Art Center tour of artists' studios. Hours are from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call School 33 at 410-396-4641, or the Clipper Park Arts Center at 410-662-9346.
Pub Date: 4/13/97