Belated acclaim for plaster castle

Jacques Kelly

January 18, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Nearly 30 years after the wreckers leveled Lexington Street's Valencia Theatre, this rococo plaster castle is getting some belated professional recognition.

The Valencia was the work of John Eberson, a flamboyant architect who specialized in fantastic theaters. Eberson (1875-1954), born in Bukovina (now the U.S.S.R.), got his training in Dresden and Vienna. His specialty was the "atmospheric" theater -- essentially a large auditorium wherein the walls were built out to resemble castle battlements, Castillian patios and Turkish gardens, with a strong -- of Sunset Boulevard. He rounded up many of the ideas that Walt Disney later incorporated in his updating of an amusement park.

Eberson's belated acclaim comes in the form of a small exhibition at the Octagon Museum in Washington, adjacent to the American Institute of Architects headquarters. Most of the show is devoted to Eberson's film houses in other cities, but there's a pair of 1926 photos of his local opus, the Valencia, plus his masterly regilding of the Century.

The huge Century Theatre, at 18 W. Lexington St., opened in 1921 with a rooftop cabaret, reached by three 30-passenger elevators. Eberson converted this six-flight-up auditorium into the Valencia, then added some signature touches, such as a plaster statue of the mythological Laocoon and his sons wrestling with serpents, to the Century. Some people thought Eberson's work looked like Madrid gone to hell.

"The balcony and mezzanine were straight out of a medieval nightmare with gargoyles and semi-nude carvings on the walls and pillars, dim and eerie. I always felt a little uneasy going up there, especially after a horror show," said Robert K. Headley Jr., Baltimore's theater historian. On the other hand, The Evening Sun's critic pronounced the Valencia "the loveliest movie theater we have ever seen," in a Dec. 28, 1926, review. Baltimoreans still rue the loss of these two palaces, as ridiculous as they may have been.

The exhibition of old photos and Eberson's firm's enormous and delightful drawings reveals all the attention given to the rough stucco walls decorated with shells, nymphs, roof tiles, brocade banners, naked statues, iron sconces, artificial Spanish moss, jardinieres and stained glass. Even the floor was flagstone.

But of all the theater's architectural excess, the most fondly recalled feature was its rounded ceiling, inset with dozen of quartz electric stars. There was even a machine that beamed clouds through this Spanish sunset. And, of course, a Wurlitzer pipe organ serenaded the silent MGM features.

An old photo of Eberson makes him appear to be a happy man, dressed in a size-44 suit and outfitted with an artists' flowing cravat. His face looks like a jolly cabbage. "Serious" architects, of course, smirked at Eberson's crass, commercial fantasies.

Truth be told, the Valencia was not such a great money-making theater. After Morris A. Mechanic purchased it from Loew's Inc., he closed the house in 1955. When the city condemned Lexington Street for the Charles Center urban renewal, the fate of both houses was sealed.

But before their 1962 demolition, Clarisse Mechanic, wife of the owner, decided to salvage a large bench from the darkened old cinema for use in a patients' garden at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Workmen hauled the settee out and installed it outdoors.

"Then came the first rain. I got a call from the hospital. It was plaster and collapsed," Mrs. Mechanic recalled. Laocoon, by the way, survived. He was moved to the Maryland Institute.

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