In its storied past, such notables as Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Congressman Parren Mitchell and bandleader Cab Calloway marched down the aisles and across the large stage of the old Frederick Douglass High School's 1,800-seat auditorium during their high school graduation ceremonies.
But for all the memories it held, the West Baltimore auditorium had no future since the high school -- once the only one black students in the city could attend -- closed 37 years ago.
Then yesterday, in the marble-floored lobby outside the auditorium, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke presented a $16,000 check from the city's Community Development Block Grant funds to the Douglass Alumni Association. The money will pay for a feasibility study that is expected to pave the way for a $1 million restoration of the old auditorium as a performing arts center.
"The historic importance of this place is great," said Mayor Schmoke. "It is in a neighborhood that we are trying to renew with the restoration of this building. So many of the city's leaders came from here."
Although the school was closed in 1954, the building was converted in 1988 for rental housing for 100 low-income families. The auditorium was not part of the renovation and has remained sealed.
Barbara Sheffy Leak, alumni association president, remembers attending plays and operas at the auditorium in her youth and meeting with friends outside it.
"I'm just so glad to see that it will be in use," said Mrs. Leak, a member of the Class of '43. "This is the beginning of a project that means so much to those of us who came here."
"It's really thrilling to see this building again," said Margaret PeMan Armstrong, Class of '33. "You notice things you didn't notice when you were here. I remember coming here to watch operas like the 'Pied Piper' and 'The Flying Dutchman.' It was very exciting."
Even dark, dusty and boarded-up, the fine workmanship and architectural outlines of the auditorium's heyday remain. Many of the Douglass alumni couldn't resist the temptation to peer inside. Their recollections filled the lobby with warm memories of past events and of an education received in an all-black school before the civil rights era.
"I remember the quality education we got," said Alma Dorsey Walker, a member of the Class of '33. "We had devoted teachers who were interested in us, who made sure we could read and write. They left us a beautiful legacy."