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Proposal to raise curtain at Read's gives birth to great expectations

Spotlighters Theatre is putting in a bid to relocate to the former Read's Drug Store, pictured, at 123 N. Howard Street. In 1955 a group of civil right activists and Morgan state students staged a successful "sit-in" demonstration at the drug store lunch counter five years before the iconic Woolworth's sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Spotlighters Theatre is putting in a bid to relocate to the former Read's Drug Store, pictured, at 123 N. Howard Street. In 1955 a group of civil right activists and Morgan state students staged a successful "sit-in" demonstration at the drug store lunch counter five years before the iconic Woolworth's sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

I was walking north along Howard Street recently after a performance at the Hippodrome Theatre when I succumbed to despairing thoughts about this orphaned part of the city.

I looked at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets — and the part known as the Superblock — and wondered if anyone would adopt, preserve and revive this area once so central to the lives of Baltimoreans.

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An article this week in The Baltimore Sun gives some hope, detailing the aspirations of the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre to move to the former main downtown store of the old Read's drugstore chain.

A theater here would be a fantastic fit for a neighborhood emerging as a residential-commercial area. The proposal is in its early stages, but I commend the theater company for its vision and appreciate the encouragement it has received from the Baltimore Development Corp. and Everyman Theatre.

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Why not another playhouse, or two, here?

The Hippodrome, a pioneering presence on Eutaw Street, has been up and running now for 12 years after a lengthy period of neglect and disuse.

Everyman Theatre, which sits between the Hippodrome and the proposed Spotlighters project, has been in operation on Fayette Street since 2012. It, too, was a vacant shell, yet emerged after a long period of dormancy with a sympathetic architectural treatment.

Ted Rouse, son of the Columbia developer, has proposed a theater complex a little farther north on Howard at the old Schellhase Restaurant property. In 2014, he said several theater companies, including Annex Theater, EMP Collective, Acme Corporation and Stillpointe Theatre, might find a home in the vacant buildings.

This is a part of Baltimore that, for me, is packed with memories and emotion. I enjoyed many a beer and plates of sour beef and dumplings at Schellhase's.

I also spent many a Saturday morning at Read's lunch (for me, breakfast) counter, which Morgan State University students successfully integrated in 1955. That historic fact would be noted and celebrated in the building's repurposing as a theater.

Read's at Howard and Lexington was a landmark store in downtown Baltimore. No trip downtown — no matter how many department stores you called on — was complete without a quick pass through Read's for a bottle of aspirin or a chocolate ice cream soda.

In the days before we spoke of diversity in the community, Read's was a crossroads of all Baltimore.

One can see how the physical aspects of the building lend itself to a theater. The store was constructed on an open plan, with a large, central core.

This atrium-like space was surrounded by a balcony on all four sides. The balcony contained additional food service.

From that perch, in the 1970s, I'd have my coffee and a grilled nut stick — a sinful confection that married butter, flaky pastry and calories — and watch people buy shampoo and cigarettes. Even in this role, the place was great theater.

In its prolonged vacant state, the structure's roof has caved in — but the once-soaring interior space could be reopened for the Spotlighters' theatrical presentations.

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The 1934 Read's building went up quickly because, I presume, the owners of the prosperous chain did not want to lose revenue during prolonged construction. Architects Smith and May came up with a clean and modern building inset with little medallions depicting the Ark and the Dove — the ships that brought colonists to Maryland three centuries earlier.

Read's reigned here, at Howard and Lexington, for 41 years until the Rite Aid chain took over. In those four decades, its Art Deco chrome signs and graphic details disappeared.

I'd like to see other independent venues emerge to adopt the architectural treasures of the Superblock. It was never a unified space; it was a typical urban retail area, where one merchant competed against another, and where the individual personalities of the venues remain memorable decades later.

This area is ready for an encore.

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