The best and cheapest way to save the vacant Pikes Theater and see it flower anew as a cultural arts center is to destroy the old building and start over.
That was the recommendation presented by consultants yesterday to several hundred Pikesville Chamber of Commerce members, theater boosters and politicians at a breakfast meeting to discuss the future of the landmark Art Deco building.
The Pikesville Cultural Arts Foundation, a non-profit group, now leases the 55-year-old building from Baltimore County. Until the foundation can raise $4.5 million to build a new performing arts theater with 400 to 500 seats, and another $2 million for operating subsidies, it has another, short-term plan.
The foundation would raise $300,000 for a modest renovation of the existing building, show foreign and art films there and vTC conduct daytime educational programs for children and senior citizens and weekend events for families. The building is located in the 900 block of Reisterstown Road.
The interim renovation would take three to six months once the money is in hand, according to Aimee A--ek, the arts foundation's new director. The work would include enlarging the lobby, where espresso coffee would be served along with popcorn and candy.
Fund raising began yesterday, with donations of $2,500 each from Maryland National Bank and Giant Food, and $500 from the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.
The long-term plan, however, makes retention of the existing theater impractical, according to a study conducted for the county government and explained yesterday by Richard Burns of the Columbia Design Collective.
"I wanted to save the existing building," Mr. Burns said, explaining that his first unescorted date 23 years ago was with a girl named Marci at the Pikes.
The problem, he said, is that the building is too small and narrow for use as anything other than a cinema. There's no room for a stage, a large lobby, dressing rooms or a backstage area. And the ceiling is too low for a balcony and for the overhead lighting and electronic gadgets needed for live performances.
The cost of enlarging and renovating the existing building would be higher than the cost of designing and building a whole new structure, he said.
"It's a shame" to demolish the old building, said County Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, who attended the breakfast. "We're all disappointed about that. I hope they can at least save the facade."
The arts foundation, now chaired by former Del. Howard Needle, has in mind a building with a large, showy, two-story lobby, a 400-to-500 seat theater and adjoining rooms for educational and other programs.
According to theater consultant Martin Vinik, of the Roger Morgan Studio of New York, the Baltimore art community's need for a new venue meshes nicely with Pikesville's need to revitalize its business core.
The theater, operating with day and night activities and exhibits, could bring hundreds of people to the old commercial strip along Reisterstown Road, and keep it from being eclipsed by the newer Owings Mills Mall and businesses farther north along Reisterstown Road, just outside the Baltimore Beltway.
Mr. Vinik said the theater needs an aggressive management to keep attractions playing all week, every week. "The architectural side is easy," he said, compared with the challenge of operating such a venture.
Mr. Needle said that a new, 700-seat theater being planned by the Jewish Community Center on its large Owings Mills campus would not hurt plans for the Pikesville theater, but would encourage an even wider audience for the arts in the county. He said the JCC theater would feature only shows with Jewish themes and would be booked 90 percent of the time.
The Baltimore County government, aided by the county revenue authority, provided the $800,000 needed to buy the vacant Pikes Theater building and 69 adjacent parking spaces from the Piven family early this year.
The foundation has a 99-year lease on the building. Mr. Needle conceded that parking is vital, and a problem in old Pikesville, but said his group will be working to open 500 privately held spaces within two blocks of the theater for patrons' use. Valet parking will also be available, he said.
County executive Roger B. Hayden, who approved buying the building despite hard fiscal times, also appeared at the breakfast and noted that the county will soon begin a street and sidewalk beautification in Pikesville.
But he cautioned that government can't do everything. Emphasizing his view of government as a catalyst, he said, "We won't be spending any more [county] money on this after today."