Theater testing the boundaries of preservation

The Baltimore Sun

Through the years Baltimore has been stingy with landmarking, granting protected status only to the old, the iconic, the beloved.

Fort McHenry, which inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The majestic Basilica of the Assumption.

Eccentricities such as Patterson Park's pagoda and the castle-like Bromo Seltzer tower.

The latest candidate, however, would be an altogether different kind of Baltimore City Landmark. By offering the coveted designation to the relatively young, homely and largely despised Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the city is not only testing the boundaries of preservation but is setting up a potentially nasty fight with developers who have a multimillion-dollar plan to turn the darkened playhouse into shops and homes.

"It raises some interesting issues," say city Planning Director Doug McCoach. "You can make the case this meets our criteria - it doesn't have to be pretty to be historic."

Fans of the boxy, concrete edifice whose heavy form has anchored the intersection of Charles and Baltimore streets for 40 years insist that it is worthy of protection because of its distinctive architecture and its pivotal role in downtown's hard-fought comeback.

With open admiration, they call it "urban sculpture." And they worry that the redevelopment would ruin that.

"The building is clearly in danger," says architect Mike Murphy, a member of the preservation board who's pushing for the theater's nomination. "If [the plans] proceed, it will never again be the Mechanic."

The Mechanic has been vacant since 2004, when it closed to make way for the freshly refurbished Hippodrome Theatre a few blocks west. The 1,614-seat Mechanic, outmoded and underequipped, could not compete with the 2,286-seat Hippodrome, particularly when Clear Channel Entertainment, the Mechanic's operator, had already decided to point its lineup of Broadway shows toward the newer, more accommodating stage.

But when the Mechanic opened on Jan. 16, 1967, it was the cutting-edge showplace, the centerpiece of the fledgling Charles Center renewal zone and Baltimore's best hope of luring people back to the city center they'd abandoned.

The theater was also audaciously modern inside and out - to the delight of some and the disgust of others.

Designer John Johansen embraced everything in the Brutalism playbook - the raw, pockmarked concrete, the blocky, angular lines, the almost religious dedication to marry form with function.

"Although it's dated now and modernism is passe, [Charles Center] was one of the better designed and more successful downtown rehabilitation projects nationwide, and the theater building was an important part," says James D. Dilts, co-author of A Guide to Baltimore Architecture. "It's one of the better buildings of the last half-century."

Adds architect Walter Schamu, who calls himself "one of the last five architects in town who likes the Mechanic": "I think the Baltimore view is that it's a little crude and a little unfinished, but I still love it."

Schamu perhaps understates the Baltimore view.

An unattractive block of concrete. A massive pile. Uncompromising, harsh and ugly. Unfinished. Anti-urban. Anti-people. It usually goes a little something like that.

In their nomination analysis, city planners include this description of the moment that prominent Baltimoreans first saw the model of the theater:

According to Barbara Bonnell, who worked for the Charles Center redevelopment team, when the cloth was pulled back, fundraiser J. Jefferson Miller Jr., a Hecht Co. executive, gasped and said, "Looks like a poached egg on toast."

A development team headed by Arrow Parking co-owners Benjamin and Melvin Greenwald bought the shuttered Mechanic in 2005 for $6 million.

Though Benjamin Greenwald declined to discuss his plans or the potential landmarking, renderings on file at the city's Planning Department show a second level of stores built onto the theater and a 10-story residential tower rising behind it along Charles Street.

Though city planners need to figure out exactly what developers could do to the building if it became a landmark, the purpose of the designation is to protect the integrity of the architecture.

"If deemed a landmark it should stay relatively pure," Schamu says.

Martin L. Millspaugh, who led the agency that organized the Charles Center and Inner Harbor renewal projects, says building over the Mechanic would be "a terrible loss."

"It has survived in the thinking of people who care about those things as an important example of its time and a very successful one," he says.

Because the Mechanic's design depended so much on its use as a theater, McCoach wonders about the value of what's left. The developers have started stripping the building's interior.

"Once you've taken the interior function away, how true is it?" the planning director asks. "Can you add a tower to this thing without compromising the exterior?"

Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership, a center-city advocacy group that's endorsed the Mechanic's redevelopment, sees nothing worth preserving in the theater and worries that landmark protections would inhibit the plans.

"There are literally dozens of historic properties downtown worth preserving. I'm not sure that the Morris Mechanic is one of them," he says.

"The Mechanic center is a linchpin to the full development of downtown," he adds. "There's no reason why visitors would want to walk up Charles Street if the back of the Morris Mechanic stays the way it is. We should be doing everything we can to make the developer succeed."

The Mechanic's landmark nomination is part of a push by Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to protect more deserving buildings before they're threatened.

Recently, with demolition looming, the commission tried futilely to landmark the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment buildings and 1820s rowhouses near Mercy Medical Center.

CHAP has named 17 city landmarks in the past decade. Tyler Gearhart, chairman of the preservation commission, says the agency plans to get nearly that many on the designation track, including the Mechanic, next month. Landmarks also require approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Although Dilts sees historical value in the Mechanic, the author doesn't see much point in an empty building at a major downtown intersection.

"The ultimate answer ... is the use you find for the building. If a building has no use, it dies, it disappears," he says. "If there was [a use for the Mechanic], I think you could make a much stronger case for the preservation of that building.

"If there is nothing to do with it, as a practical matter other things have to come."

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