Alarmed by the Senator Theatre's close call with the auction block last month, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted unanimously yesterday to establish an immediate six-month moratorium on architectural changes to the Senator's exterior and to recommend to the City Council that the 67-year-old Art Deco building be designated a landmark.
The commission voted also to write a letter to the City Council urging it to support the Senator's continued existence as a first-run movie theater. The Senator is the last single-screen movie house in Baltimore, which once had more than 175.
The six-month "special listing" will protect the building from demolition while city officials address the more arduous task of adding it to the city's 125 structures designated as landmarks.
The preservation commission voted in favor of a similar process for the Senator in 1986, but City Council members ultimately removed the theater from consideration after hearing objections from its owner at the time, F.H. Durkee Enterprises.
The Senator's current owner, Thomas A. Kiefaber -- who bought the theater from relatives in 1988 and whose financial travails led to a foreclosure action last month by a bank holding a $1.2 million mortgage on the property -- told the commission he had "mixed emotions" about the proposed landmark designation "and its rushed circumstances."
"Our concern was that someone was going to purchase your building and tear it down," responded James Kraft, a member of the preservation commission and the City Council, told Kiefaber. "No one's trying to infringe on your property rights."
Reading from a 16-page statement for 45 minutes, Kiefaber wondered why the preservation commission "appears to be genuinely concerned about the preservation of the Senator Theatre, when other factions of city government have acted overtly behind the scenes to trigger the very crisis that led to this hearing."
Kiefaber, a grandson of Frank H. Durkee, who built the theater in 1939, reserved specific criticism for Baltimore Development Corp., which he blamed for "shabby treatment" over the years.
Andrew B. Frank, deputy mayor for economic development and former executive vice president of BDC, told The Sun last month that the city had helped Kiefaber four times in the past decade and that it had guaranteed half of the $1.2 million loan to the Senator from 1st Mariner Bank.
The bank planned to put the theater up for auction Feb. 21 after Kiefaber fell considerably behind on his monthly mortgage payments of about $8,000 and his debt climbed to $110,000 in loan payments and fees.
The crisis "triggered an astounding grass-roots outpouring" of concern and contributions, Kiefaber said, enabling him to stave off the auction with hours to go.
About a dozen members of the public rose to speak, all but two supportive.
Julie Sandhaus, who lives near the theater, brought her daughters to the hearing. Elanor, 6, and Phoebe, 9, said they had contributed some of their Valentine's Day allowance to help save the Senator.
"If Mr. Kiefaber retains ownership of the theater," Sandhaus said, "we probably have very little to worry about."