Old Merchants Club has a swashbuckling future with Chesapeake Shakespeare

Chesapeake Shakespeare is leasing the oak-paneled fourth of the old Merchants Club for a studio theater.

The building at 206 E. Redwood St. meets a crucial requirement — its ceilings are high enough to accommodate sword fights.

When the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company needed rehearsal and small-theater space, the cavernous fourth floor of the old Merchants Club met the blade-clashing challenge.

It's also helpful that the former men's luncheon club is next door to the theatrical company's main stage at the northeast corner of Calvert and Redwood streets.

The old club has been vacant since 2011 and was bought recently by Scott Helm and his Helm Real Estate Holdings. Helm is a board member of the Shakespeare troupe, which moved into downtown Baltimore from Ellicott City in 2014 (though summer performances continue in Howard County).

Plans are underway for its renovation by Southway Builders, which specializes in historic structures. Upgrades will include new restrooms and mechanical systems, and a combination of two old elevators into a single, modern unit.

The Merchants Club is among the structures finding new purpose in the varied neighborhood emerging along Redwood Street. Many of the buildings were constructed just after the 1904 Baltimore Fire and reflect a harmony of stone and fine brickwork.

The clubhouse, which reopened in 1905 after that devastating fire, hosted an inaugural banquet for its 1,000 members that included beef tongue in jelly, turkey in aspic and Smithfield ham.

The structure — designed by Joseph Evans Sperry, the architect who created the Bromo Seltzer-Emerson Drug Co. tower — is a dignified building constructed with no interior columns. Each floor seems like it's a grand banquet hall.

Chesapeake Shakespeare is leasing the oak-paneled fourth floor, which is reached via a classic staircase illuminated by a skylight inset with the initials MC — Merchants Club.

The space will be known as the Studio at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, and will be used for smaller performances — up to 150 seats. It will also be used for rehearsals and acting classes.

The company is leasing the club's third floor for offices. The troupe serves about 25,000 patrons a year.

"Buildings in this area are being snapped up," said Jean Thompson, communications director for Chesapeake Shakespeare, who has watched this part of Baltimore change in the last 24 months.

Just across the street, the old Keyser building is now the boutique Hotel RL. After decades of being vacant, the old city campus of the United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., at Calvert and Water streets, is now apartments.

Thompson expects more change — particularly conversions from offices to apartments — but points out that the neighborhood also needs night and weekend dining venues.

"I'd love to see a restaurant here so our patrons could walk from a dinner table to their seats at the theater," she said. "It's the No. 1 question we receive at our box office: "Where can I eat a nice dinner?'"

The Merchants Club closed its doors in 1989. Its building was later owned by the cooking and hospitality school Baltimore International College Inc. It is one of those little gems that line Redwood Street and recall its gilt-edged days as the financial heart of Baltimore.

The ancient wealth of the Baltimore elite passed through the landmark Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co., which is now the Chesapeake Shakespeare headquarters.

Mercantile closed its Redwood Street location in 1993 and the college lost its accreditation in 2011.

Thompson recalled once giving a talk about her acting company to a group in Burtonsville. A former Mercantile employee stepped forward and contributed a cache of historical documents and a wooden safe-deposit box from the place. She will incorporate the items into a history display.

The theater company recently won a grant from the Baltimore National Heritage Association to show artifacts, including an oversized World War I-era photo Thompson found of Merchants Club members.

"Customers ask about the building's history all the time," she said. "People talk about their relationship with the institution. There is a great, personal love for the building."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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