About a year ago, I took a hard-hat tour of a work in progress — checking in on Calvert Street's landmark Center Stage, which had shut down temporarily.
It was a necessary intermission. After 40 years as the home of this theater company, the building needed refurbishment.
This week, I returned and saw a project near completion. As I climbed the staircase leading to Center Stage's renovated Head Theater, the old iron treads seemed cleaner. The walls were fresh and bright.
When I reached the upper floors of this venerable building, I encountered a stylish new lobby and bar, a place where you'll want to have a drink, discuss the play and catch up on gossip.
Nice job, I thought.
In this preview of a coming attraction, I also visited the amazing new costume department, the place where designers create the dresses and suits we have come to associate with a Center Stage production. I saw the dye vats used to color fabrics and the tubs where completed costumes are purposely distressed — this is the place where peasant costumes become realistically worn.
I've been told the costume section previously filled three different spaces scattered around the place. The department is now unified in a spacious spot with gleaming wood floors and exceptional lighting. It faces the rear of 1850s rowhouses on St. Paul Street.
The setting is so attractive it might make me want to learn how to use a sewing machine.
This $28 million makeover significantly updates the quarters that Center Stage has occupied since it took up residency in December 1975. The theater company lost its previous home on East North Avenue in a 1974 fire, then hurriedly moved into the former Loyola High School and college buildings on Calvert Street.
At the time, the academic building had not been used as a school for nearly 30 years.
Baltimore audiences applauded how Center Stage accommodated itself within the Mount Vernon landmark. But the theater, built around classrooms, study halls and a small auditorium, saw hard use over 40 years.
The place needed wholesale renovation, much of it focused upon outdated building mechanics, including electrical and heating systems, air conditioning and plumbing.
Architectural firm Cho Benn Holback and contractor Whiting-Turner have delivered a clean and updated space — including painting brick walls which, in classic 1970s style, were previously exposed natural brick.
The white walls and the improved lighting create the feel of a pleasingly changed interior, one that suggests a serious space and not a hastily rehabbed 1975 theater.
The Head Theater, on the building's fourth floor, was thoroughly redesigned by Charcoalblue, a London firm. This new look makes good use of the arched windows at the corner of Calvert and Monument streets, and excellent use of the building's 1899 bones.
"I am really excited about this space," said Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage's artistic director. "You'll feel closer to the actors here. The acoustics will be better. … The seats are more comfy.
"As you can see, I am slightly enthusiastic about all this," Kwei-Armah said.
Baltimore philanthropists Marilyn Meyerhoff, Lynn Deering, Eddie and Sylvia Brown, and Terry Morgenthaler made much of this transformation possible.
The renovations will be completed in the next few weeks, and a reopening event is scheduled with the debut of "The White Snake" in early March.
When patrons return, they'll see the theater's Calvert Street entrance has been named for the late Peter Culman, the company's longtime managing director. They'll also see how architect Diane Cho has accented the building's granite base with her bold front door, emphasizing the structure's original carriage entry to a one-time interior court.
And they'll also see a new lighted vertical sign proclaiming this is, indeed, Center Stage.