A dramatic vision

Sun Architecture Critic

When architect Hugh Hardy first stepped inside Baltimore's long-dormant Hippodrome Theatre five years ago, he didn't see the broken lights, the worn-out seats, the water-damaged plaster in the ceiling.

He saw instead a once-lavish space in which performers such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra years ago had delighted Marylanders, a space that, though neglected, held vast potential to delight again. "It's the Radio City Music Hall of Baltimore - a big, generous hall with room for everybody," he says.

As one of the leading theater designers in the United States, the New York-based architect is an expert on what makes performing arts centers successful.

Now he's bringing that expertise to Baltimore, where his firm, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, is leading the effort to restore and upgrade the 1914 landmark as the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, a replacement for the aging Morris A. in Charles Center.

With the grand opening less than six months away - Feb. 10, 2004 - anticipation is building. Mayor Martin O'Malley and other civic leaders are counting on the 2,276-seat theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. to be far more than a new home for traveling Broadway shows that in recent years have bypassed Baltimore.

In their eyes, the Hippodrome will do for Baltimore what and Oriole Park did in the 1980s and '90s: catalyze economic development and attract thousands of people to the city, thus literally setting the stage for renewal of Baltimore's once bustling retail district.

So far, the city's cultural gambit appears to be paying off. Broadway hits such as The Producers and Mamma Mia! are booked for the Hippodrome's debut season, and theater management is predicting 450,000 patrons will visit annually. Advance ticket sales are strong, with more than 10,000 season ticket packages sold to date - a reminder of the days when Baltimore led the nation in theater subscriptions.

The theater has been undergoing a $65 million restoration and modernization for the past year. And next February, if patrons like what they see, they can thank Hugh Hardy. While many people have played key roles in "taking Baltimore to the next stage," as project promoters put it, Hardy, more than anyone, has been responsible for shaping that stage - and everything around it.

Building a community

The original Hippodrome Theater was designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in gilded entertainment palaces, and built by Pearce and Scheck, a company that organized touring vaudeville acts.

Like many vaudeville theaters, the Hippodrome was later converted to a movie house, which prospered until well after World War II. But its fortunes faded with the advent of television and suburban department stores, which lured people away from the city's traditional retail hub of Howard and Lexington streets.

By the 1980s, the Hippodrome was showing second-run blaxploitation films and was surrounded by beeper stores and wig shops. In 1990, it went dark altogether - a victim of the urban decay that had consumed much of downtown's west side, even as other parts of the city were experiencing a much vaunted "renaissance."

For Hardy, whose firm was chosen by the state from a field of 13 architecture teams, the project is not simply a matter of rebuilding a derelict theater; it is a chance to rebuild a community.

The 71-year-old architect believes performing arts centers contribute to a sense of community in the same way that markets and stadiums do. In the first decades of the 20th century, he says, cities offered residents of rural areas a place in which to gather, to dine, to share experiences. Urban theaters flourished.

"In a weird way, we're returning to that," he says. "Today we're isolated not by geography but by technology. We're isolated behind the steering wheel of the car. We're isolated in front of the TV set. We're isolated behind the computer screen. There's an excitement in coming together in a big room and sharing experiences with other people."

Although the architect has focused largely on details during the final stages of construction, he is particularly enthusiastic about the big picture - an approach that he believes will set the France-Merrick center apart from other theater restorations around the country.

While many cities have preserved old theaters as stand-alone attractions, he notes, Baltimore chose to make a historic theater the centerpiece of an entire city block of new and restored buildings. Together they form a performing arts powerhouse designed to meet the needs of contemporary theater patrons while retaining much of the building's original character.

No other city has created this sort of urban ensemble devoted to the arts, Hardy says. As a result, the revamped Hippodrome "will be more important [to the city] than it was when it was built."

Top of their field

Baltimore has been fortunate in recent decades to have architects who were not only leaders in their fields of expertise, but at the top of their game when they worked here. The roster includes Benjamin Thompson, who designed the shopping pavilions that transformed the Inner Harbor; Peter Chermayeff, the genius behind the in Baltimore; HOK Sport, designers of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Hardy follows in that tradition. Since its founding in 1967, his firm has designed or restored more than 100 performing arts venues from Radio City Music Hall and the New Amsterdam in New York to the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage and the Hawaii Theater Center in Honolulu.

Hardy and his longtime partners, Malcolm Holzman and Norman Pfeiffer, see architecture as a performing art, a collaborative effort that incorporates the needs of performers and audiences. "He really understands the theater - the permanent part that supports the production - and the temporal part - what happens when the lights go down," says David Rockwell, a New York-based architect whose firm collaborated with Hardy's on the restoration of Radio City Music Hall.

"He sees the theater as a place to tell stories. That's why his theaters are so good, because they create a relationship between performer and audience."

Fascinated by theater

A tall man with a buoyant personality and the presence of a stage actor, Hardy exudes enthusiasm as he leads a visitor through the Hippodrome to survey construction progress.

"Look at this guy," he marvels, standing on scaffolding that brings him nose to nose with a large plaster figure high above the stage. "Can you believe it? He's as big as we are."

An inveterate people watcher, Hardy was born in 1932 in Mallorca, Spain. His father was an advertising copywriter on assignment overseas with Colliers magazine. He brought his family home to the U. S. when his son was 2 1/2 .

Growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., Hardy often ventured on his own into New York City, where he became fascinated by theaters. "I must have sat in the upper balcony of every theater in the city," he recalls.

After high school, Hardy earned bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from Princeton University, where he won the coveted D'Amato Prize. While in college, he made sets and painted scenery for local theater productions.

"The difference between painting something on the floor and then hanging it up and looking at it from 30 yards away is certainly good training for the eye. But I didn't know that at the time," he says.

Though Hardy studied architecture with every intention of making a living at it, he didn't like what was happening in the profession. When he was in college, the modernists held sway, teaching students to design buildings that were devoid of color and ornament and historical reference.

"Architecture in the 1950s was really pretty awful stuff, he says. "You could get a degree ... and know nothing about the history of architecture. And there was no color. Nothing. It was all taught in black and white. That's lunacy. But that's how it was."

He had one hero, though: Eero Saarinen. The Finnish-born American architect designed structures that were works of sculpture: The soaring TWA Terminal in New York, with its sail-like roofs expressing wings and flight, and the sweeping Dulles Airport terminal in Northern Virginia.

From 1958 to 1961, Hardy worked with Saarinen and acclaimed theater designer Jo Mielziner, who were collaborating on the design of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at New York's Lincoln Center.

"Jo didn't have anybody on his staff who knew architecture, and Eero needed somebody he could talk to. So at a very tender age, there I was, going back and forth between the two of them when the Beaumont was being designed. And in the course of that, I realized that what Eero was doing was really the most interesting thing."

It was then that Hardy realized how much he loved theater architecture - the importance of setting the mood, the drama of lighting and color, the ornamental aspects of design that modern architects had ignored for years.

"All that stuff of ornament and color and so forth was anathema" in the 1950s and 1960s, he says. "It was vilified by the modernists. It was toxic."

Eventually, there was a backlash of architects who believed history should not be ignored. Some were theorists, searching for meaning in architectural forms. Some became "post-modernists," using history as a sort of grab-bag of design ideas. Then there were more eclectic types, such as Hardy, who weren't afraid to work with old buildings and learn from their designers.

After Saarinen died in 1961, Hardy established his own firm, Hugh Hardy & Associates, the precursor to Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. It quickly became known for planning renovations that acknowledged - and celebrated - a building's past. "We took history and said it's OK," he says. "We used it as part of our architecture."

The pendulum is still swinging in his direction. Today, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer has 150 employees in New York and Los Angeles. Though the firm isn't known merely for its theater designs - in New York alone its projects include reclaimed civic spaces such as Bryant Park, the redesigned Rainbow Room and Bridgemarket, a restaurant and retail space under the Queensboro Bridge - it is one of the country's few architectural firms with a full-time "Performing Arts Group" that works on theater projects. Within his profession, Hardy is considered a luminary.

'Splendid public ritual'

A recently published book shows what Hardy and his partners can do with old theaters - and hints at the Hippodrome's future. Called Theaters, the book (Watson-Guptill, 2000) is filled with extraordinary photographs of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer projects: the rich interiors of the Ohio Theater, the gilded plasterwork of the New Victory, the playfulness of the Wilma, the curiously unfinished look of the Majestic Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

One of the most spectacular is the New Amsterdam Theatre, which the firm restored in Times Square for the Walt Disney Co. as the setting for its stage production of The Lion King. Vacant for years, the theater was nearly lost to neglect and weather damage. Now it has been returned to all its glory, with lush wood paneling, exuberant colors, elaborate terra cotta figures and an ornate dome.

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer theaters are "a set of illusions designed to heighten actuality," critic Paul Goldberger observes in an essay. Like the theater itself, he writes, it's "architecture that celebrates imagination above all."

In the book, Hardy makes a strong case for saving grand old theaters such as the Hippodrome, arguing that buildings that celebrate theater as "splendid public ritual" are the most likely to succeed.

"Past theaters relied upon representational decoration to create a sense of special occasion," he writes. "Garlands and putti, classical motifs, murals and statuary were all pressed into service. The resulting interiors contain their audiences in a lavish realm of gilt and plush, one removed from everyday experience ... "

From vaudeville to video

Like an understudy waiting in the wings to be a star, the Hippodrome has been sitting vacant on the fringe of Baltimore's central business district. The neighborhood around it, like the theater, had seen better days. Five nearby department stores all once bustling, had closed by the early 1980s. Across the street, many smaller buildings were boarded up or used for marginal purposes.

Though large and steeped in history, the old theater had limitations. Its interior was mangled over the years as owners transformed the vaudeville house into a movie palace. Ornament was stripped away. Box seats were taken out. The lobby was tiny.

During the vaudeville era, when shows were performed throughout the day and patrons trickled in and out, there was little need for a spacious lobby. Today theater performances begin at a set time and typically have one or more intermissions. The new arts center needs plenty of space in which people can gather before and after the shows and during intermissions. It needs more bars, restrooms, stairs and elevators. It needs better backstage facilities, including more space to fly scenery, modern equipment and first-class dressing rooms.

Their primary challenge, the architects realized, was to take a theater designed for vaudeville shows and make it work for the video age - while preserving its character.

"People don't just arrive at 8 o'clock and then head home," Hardy says. "They come early and they hang out after the show to beat the traffic. At intermission, they want to walk around the see their friends, see what they're wearing. There are a lot of lectures, demonstrations and other kinds of activities that occur other than performances. So you need to make it more gracious."

The saving grace of the project is that the theater wasn't the only building available for restoration. Besides controlling the Hippodrome, which was donated to the University of Maryland in 1995, the state acquired the former Western Savings Bank, just north of the theater; the former Eutaw Savings Bank at the southwest corner of Fayette and Eutaw streets, and a less ornate building to the south.

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer transformed the Hippodrome from an isolated theater to a full-fledged arts center by connecting it to these neighboring properties. The Western Savings Bank building will contain lobbies, stairs and other gathering spaces. The Eutaw Savings Bank is being converted to a meeting facility and possible second performance space.

The architects decided to raze the building to the south and erect a replacement structure containing the box office and south lobby. They also designed a new stage house and loading dock off Baltimore Street, and a link to the state-owned, 975-car garage on Paca Street.

While adding amenities on the periphery, Hardy never lost sight of the goal of restoring the theater to its 1914 character. That meant replicating details that had been lost over the years, and returning the interior to its original colors, a sepia-toned palette of tans, cremes and silver leaf accents.

The design team suggested spending less money restoring the marble walls inside the Western Savings Bank and more on the theater, including stenciling on the ceiling and reconstruction of two large turbans that frame the stage and force audience members to concentrate on the action there.

"This stuff is wonderful," Hardy says, "because it makes the room seem smaller than it is. All these big pieces of ornament change the apparent scale, which is something the modernists didn't know and couldn't do anything about, because they didn't have ornament."

Restoring the original features also set a tone for the new construction, he says. "The success of the restoration work has motivated everyone to make sure that the new construction is equally accomplished. "

Building anticipation

Like Lamb, the theater's original architect, Hardy knows it's important to create a well-orchestrated sequence of spaces that not only lead people from street to lobby to seat but put them in the mood to appreciate the performance on stage.

The process is "like an overture," Hardy says. As theatergoers arrive, "their spirits must rise, curiosity must be piqued, and the delight of a shared experience must become evident."

His major intervention at the Hippodrome was separating the expanded lobby from the restored performing space by removing two stairs in the old lobby and inserting a gently curving wall just inside the Eutaw Street entrance. Patrons will walk from the streets of 2004 Baltimore through the 1914 facade of the theater, to a transitional lobby space, and then into the restored 1914 auditorium.

This spatial hierarchy is Hardy's way of fulfilling what he considers a key job of the theater designer: transporting people from the workaday world to that of the theater. "How do you get from a group of individuals who have had a rotten day at the office or a baby sitter who was late or whose lawn mower broke, to this other realm, this other world? All of the decoration and all of the schmaltz of these rooms was really a device to make you anticipate what's going to happen onstage."

Above all, he wants to create an "aura of anticipation" before the performance begins, he says. "One of the great things theater architecture can do is make you a part of the show and make you aware that you're experiencing this thing in common with strangers. By the time the performance is done, you've also now bonded. That togetherness is the goal which you have when attending a performance. Otherwise, why not stay home and watch it on TV?"

Nonetheless, he says, the architecture of the theater should never upstage the performance people have come to see. "If you make the architecture too exciting, too demanding, too jazzy, and it never goes away, you can never leave the room and get into the performance itself. It's an interesting kind of magic act, of balance and appearing to disappear."

When the house lights go out, he adds, "the room ought to disappear. The theater ought to vanish so the only thing you experience is the performance."

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