Center Stage renovations recall a 40-year journey of dramatic proportions

Center Stage undergoing $28 million renovation that recalls its move some 40 years ago.

The early-morning sky looked as if the world had come to an end. About 3 a.m. that January day in 1974, I could hear the wail of the fire equipment outside my bedroom windows.

Center Stage, then located in a former Oriole Cafeteria at 11 E. North Ave., was destroyed in a blaze after audiences left a performance of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Baltimore's cultural community united soon after the embers cooled.

Attorney and theater advocate Donald N. Rothman met with the Rev. Anthony Zeits, a Jesuit priest who was then treasurer of the order's Maryland Province. Rothman sought permission to use the former Loyola High School and College buildings at Calvert and Monument streets in Mount Vernon as a replacement theater.

The building had not been used as a school since 1941, when the last batch of high school students moved to the Blakefield campus in Baltimore County. The college had departed for its Evergreen campus in 1922. The building and its hall had temporary occupants in the fall of 1968 during the trial of the Catonsville Nine, when dozens of anti-war activists converged on Baltimore.

Those present during the meeting between the priest and lawyer recalled that Rothman made a strong appeal — he noted that theater worked to better the lot of mankind.

He appealed to Zeits to hand over the building free of charge, and in one of the city's more curious transactions, the religious order agreed.

Center Stage paid a token $10 annual ground rent.

In December 1975, Center Stage made its debut at Calvert and Monument streets. In less than two years, a new playhouse had arrived inside the old Loyola quarters.

Audiences were curious, then amazed. The theater was in the 1899 part of the structure. Other portions of the property dated from 1855. It all looked new and very 1970s.

Architects and designers had transformed old corridors and classrooms to provide a setting that appealed to prevailing aesthetics — bare brick walls, natural wood and exposed metal.

Audiences loved it. The place won awards for a strategy now known as "adaptive reuse."

Forty years later, the Dumpsters and trucks are back as Center Stage embarks on a $28 million renovation.

The theater company has used this building long and hard over four decades. It needed a thorough housecleaning.

Of course, the Baltimore theater scene has changed too. Other local companies, such as Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and Everyman Theatre, work in their own nicely renovated spaces. Both Chesapeake and Everyman were designed by architects Cho, Benn and Holback Associates. That same firm designed the current Center Stage update.

"We are preserving the building's historic bones by adding 21st-century technology," said Diane Cho, a partner at the firm.

As I visited the building this week, I immediately noticed that the 1970s entry canopy facing Calvert Street had been stripped away. It is now possible to see the original granite entrance to the building, where 19th-century carriages would have driven to enter a courtyard behind the classrooms.

Junking the old canopy opens the place up and draws the eye to the building's original design.

I toured the structure with Center Stage officials and a Whiting-Turner project manager and realized that much of what was done 40 years ago was accomplished on a low budget and a tight deadline.

Center Stage added to the renovations along the way, with a major expansion in 1989, but the place now appears to be getting the thorough and thoughtful care it needs. Adaptive reuse in 1975 was an improvement over outright demolition, but architects and designers have honed their skills in the past four decades.

Our collective appreciation of the past seems to have improved. I climbed a wonderful steel 1899 staircase — which had been battered by young scholars from 1899 to 1941, then by theater patrons — and looked out the structure's fine windows.

The view certainly beats the one I saw from my bedroom window those years ago when the old Center Stage was ablaze. On this bright January day, I could see a stronger, brighter future — one that is expected to debut with its first new production in February 2017.

jkelly@baltsun.com

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