Save Mechanic, architect urges

The Baltimore Sun

John M. Johansen has painful memories of a time when TV personalities Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas paid $6.8 million to purchase a house he designed in Connecticut, only to tear it down.

"It was like a death in the family," he laments.

Now the retired architect wants to avert another death - this time a theater he designed for downtown Baltimore.

Parking lot operators have purchased the dormant Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center for $6 million and teamed with a developer who wants to build housing, stores and maybe a hotel on the site.

The city's preservation commission is meeting at 3:30 p.m. today to decide whether to designate the 1967 theater a city landmark. That action could help protect it from demolition or extensive modification, because it would give the panel legal authority to review and approve any changes to the building's exterior once it is listed.

Johansen, an internationally renowned architect who at 91 has seen a half-dozen of his buildings razed or burned to the ground, isn't sitting idly by, however. From his home in Stanfordville, N.Y., two hours north of New York City, he has written to Mayor Sheila Dixon and the commission's directors with a plea to protect the building and urged dozens of leading architects and educators to do the same.

"I've lost seven houses - five in Connecticut and others in Massachusetts and New York," he said by phone. "I don't know what more to do. The law says whatever you own, you can destroy, except your own children. That's why we have preservation commissions. Once a building is designated a landmark, then it's not owned by just one party. It belongs to the citizenry."

Built by Baltimore real estate magnate Morris A. Mechanic, the theater opened in 1967 at 1 W. Baltimore St. as the sculptural centerpiece of Baltimore's Charles Center renewal area. It closed after the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center opened in 2004 and was purchased from Mechanic's estate in 2005 by principals of the company that operates a parking garage beneath it.

The effort to designate the Mechanic Theatre a local landmark is unusual for many reasons, including the building's relatively young age and the fact that the current owners don't support landmark designation.

In the past, the preservation commission has pursued landmark designation of a building only if its owners agreed. But because several historically significant buildings have been torn down in the past two years without the protection of local landmark status, including the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartments in Mount Vernon and a block of 1820s rowhouses near Mercy Medical Center, the panel has started considering listing buildings even if owners disagree.

One of the most unusual aspects about the effort to list the Mechanic is that its architect is still alive and fighting to protect it. Most buildings are considered for landmark designation after they have been around 50 years or more - often after their designers have died.

"Usually, when you prepare a landmark nomination, you don't get a chance to talk to the architect," said Fred Shoken, a city planner assigned to Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. "This is a rare exception."

To contemplate losing a building is wrenching for any architect, said Damie Stillman, John W. Shirley professor emeritus of art history at the University of Delaware.

"It must be like losing a child," said Stillman, who wrote a letter supporting landmark designation of the theater. "They're creations. To lose one is horrendous."

Hugh Hardy, an acclaimed New York designer who also wrote a letter on behalf of designating the Mechanic a landmark, said he recently learned that a residence he designed in Boston was torn down to make way for expansion of the neighboring hotel. He found out only when he sent a friend to see the residence and the friend said it wasn't there.

No matter how passionately architects work on them, "they're not your own buildings," Hardy said. "You don't possess them. They're made for other people, and other people do the damnedest things. That's all part of what it is to be an architect."

Born in New York City in 1916, the son of world-class portrait painters John Christen and Jean MacLane Johansen, John Johansen trained as a painter before turning to architecture and graduating from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design in 1939.

At Harvard, Johansen was influenced by Bauhaus master Walter Gropius and later married Gropius' daughter. After working with the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, he opened a practice in New Canaan, Conn., near noted architects Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer and Eliot Noyes. He became part of an elite group of architects who were early champions of modern design in America.

Johansen was one of the pioneers of a design approach known as Brutalism because it involved creating unadorned buildings with raw concrete - "breton brut" in French.

He produced a relatively small body of work but gained international stature. His projects include the U.S. Embassy in Ireland, the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, Clowes Memorial Hall and Opera House in Indianapolis, and Roosevelt Island Housing in New York.

In 1968, Time magazine named Johansen one of the country's leading architects, along with Paul Rudolph, Eero Saarinen, Breuer, Johnson and others. With Johnson's death in 2005, his contemporaries are no longer alive.

"I'm the only one left," he says.

But Johansen doesn't want pity. He simply believes the Mechanic is worth preserving, and he'll do whatever he can to make that happen. He notes that the theater was a key building in downtown Baltimore's renewal in the 1960s, designed to bring the arts to an area that was primarily offices.

"The Mechanic Theatre is one of my favorites," he said. "It's right up there at the top of the list. It's a dear, dear building. It's not brutalistic, as some say. It's like a flower, opening its petals. It has drawing power."

He recalls that he got the commission because the client, Morris Mechanic, wanted a well-known architect.

"Mr. Mechanic, looking for a big name, said, 'Let's go to Frank Lloyd Wright.' He was dead. Then they went to Philip Johnson, but there wasn't enough money for him."

Johansen was receiving attention for some of his first non-residential buildings. Johnson suggested Johansen as an architect who might work within Mechanic's budget, and Mechanic hired him.

Johansen responded with a theater whose concrete exterior was designed to express what was going on inside. The "ribs" on the north and south sides of the building are the backs of the seating areas inside. He called it functional expressionism.

Others described the building in less flattering terms, such as "Fort Mechanic." One public official likened its shape to that of a "poached egg on toast."

Johansen cringes at such descriptions and says they generally come from people who don't understand what he was trying to do.

"It's so low in its sensibility," he said of the poached egg comment. "People should not even laugh at that. Whether you like the building or not, it's an honest work of architecture. The people whose views should be taken seriously are deans of architecture schools and that sort of thing, not the common person on the street."

That's why he asked leading architects and educators to write to the preservation commission. As of this week, the panel has received more than a dozen letters from luminaries in the U.S. and Great Britain. Besides Hardy, correspondents include Sir Richard Rogers of London, co-designer of the Pompidou Centre in Paris; Richard Meier, lead designer of the Getty Center in California; Kevin Roche, designer of the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York; and James Stewart Polshek, author of the Rose Center in New York and the Clinton Library in Arkansas.

University deans and professors and museum directors also have weighed in, all saying the building should be designated a landmark. Both the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National AIA Committee on Design favor designation.

Some of the letters contain barbs that could have come right out of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

"I urge your commission to save [the Mechanic] ... from the wrecking ball of greed," wrote Polshek, longtime dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

It's "an architectural treasure" for a city "lacking in great examples of modern architecture," Meier wrote.

It was "created in fearless dedication to the future ... at a time when others had abandoned hope," said Hardy.

In his letter to the mayor, Johansen said he believes the property should continue to be used for "cultural and civic" purposes, not just "additional commercial enterprise."

He suggests that the Mechanic could live on as "a hybrid building that would be a combination of theater and restaurant, with well-known chefs" - as a way to keep Charles Center alive after dark. Although he is retired, Johansen said he would be available to serve as a consultant to the owners and their designers, if they wished.

Beyond that, "there's nothing more that I can do," he said. "Or is there?"

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad