Addition to Lyric Opera House may project over Maryland Ave.

December 23, 1990|By Edward Gunts

The next big architectural controversy in the University of Baltimore area is likely to be the $2 million expansion proposed for the Lyric Opera House, the 1894 landmark that is owned by the Lyric Foundation, a non-profit group controlled by the University of Baltimore Education Foundation. University of Baltimore President H. Mebane Turner is chairman of its executive committee.

Plans drawn up more than a year ago by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc. of Baltimore call for the theater's east wall -- along Maryland Avenue -- to be knocked out so the backstage area can be expanded, enabling the Lyric to accommodate operas and Broadway-style shows that require larger and more complicated scenery. One hundred eight feet long and supported by pillars, the eight-story addition would extend over the sidewalk on the west side of Maryland Avenue and four feet past the curb over the street, with at least 16 feet of clearance for traffic.

The expansion is one of the uncompleted phases of the Lyric renovation project that was launched in the early 1980s, and there is no question that the historic theater could attract a wider range of productions if its cramped backstage area were enlarged.

The plan also calls for the renovation of wing space, the offstage area where scenery is stored between acts, to allow the Baltimore Opera Co. and other Lyric tenants to use the multiple sets required in many productions. From a design standpoint, one could argue that the theater has been altered so much already that changing the east facade would make no real difference now.

On the other hand, the idea of further expansion at the Lyric is questionable because it would result in the loss of the only original theater facade that has not been obscured so far -- and is arguably worth preserving for that reason. Early designs by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble indicate the highly articulated east facade would be replaced with a windowless wall with little detail or ornamentation -- a sheer cliff of bricks that would be a poor visual tradeoff for the neighborhood in general and a mundane new western edge for the university's Gordon Plaza in particular. Also, from the urban design standpoint, the idea of any large building extending over the sidewalk ought to be a cause for concern to those who have seen the new 11-story garage at 414 Water St. whose upper floors, cantilevered over Gay Street and Custom House Alley, make a most oppressive streetscape.

Before the Lyric Foundation directors may move ahead with their plan, they need about $1.5 million in state funding assistance and passage of a recently introduced City Council legislation permitting construction over the public right of way. Public hearings on the council bill are likely to begin this winter.

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