Downtown Mechanic Theatre to be sold by founder's estate


After a 37-year run, the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, a centerpiece of Baltimore's redevelopment, is for sale.

The estate of Morris A. Mechanic is entertaining offers for the 1,614-seat theater at 25 Hopkins Plaza, a property that includes street-level commercial space and underground parking.

"It is being shown," said George Cox, an accountant and personal representative for the Mechanic estate. "We don't have a firm offer, but we're in negotiations with a prospective buyer."

Cox declined to say who the buyer might be, what the prospective owner plans for the building or what the price is.

"We would like to have it as a legitimate theater, but that may not be in the cards," he said. "We'll have to consider all offers."

The Mechanic is being marketed less than a year after its operator, Clear Channel Entertainment, began mounting productions at the 2,286-seat Hippodrome Theatre several blocks away at 12 N. Eutaw St.

Clear Channel's contract to operate the Mechanic expired July 31, and Clear Channel did not renew it. The theater has been dormant since then, although the stores and businesses at its base have remained open.

At its debut on Jan. 16, 1967, as an anchor to the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area, the privately funded theater was hailed as a vote of confidence in downtown and an ideal way to draw visitors to the city after the work day ended. Its fate has been a source of concern to arts groups and others working to make downtown attractive and vibrant around the clock.

Mayor Martin O'Malley "is very interested in knowing what the theater's future is going to be," said Bill Gilmore, director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "We don't want a dark theater."

Gilmore, Baltimore Development Corp. President M. Jay Brodie and other city leaders met earlier this fall to discuss what role the city might play in any sale of the theater.

Gilmore said the mayor's office wants to do what it can to help Cox find a suitable buyer. Brodie said the city has design and zoning guidelines in place that enable it to control what happens on the property and substantive changes in use or appearance would have to be approved by the city. He also noted that the theater's mechanical systems most likely will need extensive upgrading if it is to be used for live performances.

Designed by John Johansen, the rough-textured edifice cost $4.2 million then. Besides the theater, it contains 40,000 square feet of commercial space and a two-level underground garage for 200 cars.

Because most of the structure was designed for live theater and has few windows, it would be difficult to convert to other uses. City planners say the building could continue to be a performing space for dance companies, children's theater groups and other arts organizations, or a public auditorium for an educational institution such as the Johns Hopkins University, whose Downtown Center is one block north.

Others have recommended the theater be razed to make way for new development, such as an office tower. In 1994, members of the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects suggested that the location would be ideal for the city's largest office building, providing telecommunications links for local investment firms.

But today, most of downtown's new office space is being constructed near the waterfront rather than on inland parcels such as Charles Center. Other prime properties once eyed for office development, such as the former Southern Hotel site at One Light Street, have failed to attract tenants.

William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor and governor who created the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the agency that ran the theater for years, said he was hopeful the Mechanic would continue to operate as a theater even after the Hippodrome opened.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said of a possible sale by the Mechanic estate. "I was hoping the Hippodrome Foundation was going to take it over."

Morris Mechanic died shortly before his theater opened. His widow, Clarisse Mechanic, saw that construction was completed. With her brother, Blue Baron, she represented the Mechanic estate for many years as steward of the property. But she has been in failing health in recent years and is no longer responsible for making decisions about the building that bears her late husband's name.

Schaefer and other dignitaries attended a recent luncheon at the Center Club where Clarisse Mechanic was given the first Clarisse Baron Mechanic Award for Contributions to the Arts by the Maryland Public Broadcasting Foundation, the fund-raising arm of Maryland Public Television. The award will be presented annually to people and organizations for contributions to the arts in Maryland.

Rhea Feikin, host of ArtWorks This Week on MPT, told the gathering that the Mechanic introduced Broadway-style theater to generations of Marylanders, such as herself, who did not have the luxury of traveling to New York or Washington.

"Everything from Center Stage to Everyman Theatre would not have happened without the precedent set by ... the Mechanic," Feikin said. "None of the things that have happened since would have happened without the Mechanic."

The theater was not always a success, however. It went dark in 1975 and 1976, when a private group bowed out after two years of running it for the estate. That closure led Schaefer to form the BCPA, to lease the theater and bring in Broadway-style productions. It reopened in fall 1976 and became one of the most successful operations of its kind in the country.

In recent years, the Mechanic has been unable to attract large touring shows, such as The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, because it does not have enough seats to make the tickets affordable. In addition, outmoded backstage and loading dock facilities made it difficult to mount large shows.

Marks Chowning, vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment's theater management division, said he believes the Mechanic could work well as a "cultural arts facility" for some of the small arts organizations in the city that need a home.

"Some of the dance companies, Everyman Theater, whomever," he said. "They could share box office space and have a common performing space."

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