The owners of the Lyric Opera House have backed away from plans to tear out its east wall as part of a backstage expansion, but they still plan to invest approximately $2 million in improvements.
H. Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore and head of the non-profit group that controls the Lyric Foundation, told members of Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel earlier this month that foundation directors now hope to preserve and repair the theater's east wall, the only side of the 1894 landmark that hasn't been covered over by a multi-phase renovation that was launched in the early 1980s.
Dr. Turner said the main exterior change contemplated at present for the theater, at 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., is the addition of a crosswalk that would allow actors to move from one side of the stage to the other during performances without going on or beneath the stage.
He and architects from the firm of Richter Cornbrooks Gribble showed members of the design review panel a scale model with two possible variations for a "space frame" structure that would jut out from the east wall and extend 5 to 8 feet over the sidewalk, the way a theater marquee projects from the entrance of a movie theater.
Dr. Turner said the foundation would have liked to move ahead with its earlier plan, which called for the theater's east wall to be knocked out to make way for an eight-story addition. That project would have provided more room and flyspace backstage to accommodate operas and Broadway-style shows that require larger and more complicated scenery. Raised on pillars, the addition would have extended over the sidewalk along Maryland Avenue and part of the street.
Dr. Turner said the foundation directors decided such a project is "out of the question" because of its cost. But he said the foundation still wants to move ahead with other improvements, including expansion of the space to the right of the stage, upgrading of dressing rooms, and construction of a new rear stairway leading to the stage. The foundation also would like to fix leaks in the east wall, replace deteriorated moldings and otherwise make sure the wall is in good structural condition.
To build the crosswalk, the Lyric Foundation needs passage of a City Council bill that would allow the addition to be built above the public right-of-way. That bill was introduced last fall, but council has taken no action on it. The design advisory panel gave its approval to the Lyric expansion plan in concept and will review it again when the design is further along.
Dr. Turner said he had no specific timetable for carrying out the project but the foundation already has raised about $900,000 in gifts and pledges to help fund the construction work. He indicated the foundation may ask the state legislature next year for a grant of $750,000 to $1 million to help pay for it.
After $12 million worth of improvements during the 1980s, including a new entrance and auditorium, the Lyric is currently in use 175 to 190 days a year, Dr. Turner said.