Mayfair could anchor 'avenue of the arts'

URBAN LANDSCAPE

November 04, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Baltimore's Mayfair Theater may reopen as a performing and media arts center affiliated with Towson State University as part of the Schmoke administration's campaign to make Howard Street a thriving "avenue of the arts."

The Baltimore Development Corp. has been working with Towson State representatives to explore ideas for renovating the theater at 506 N. Howard St. and the adjacent Congress Hotel at 306 W. Franklin St., properties that have been vacant for several years.

The city-owned theater is one of three downtown theaters for which local groups are exploring arts-related restoration plans.

With a $50,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the city is studying the idea of creating a National Museum of Live Entertainment -- a continuing salute to vaudeville and Baltimore's link to it -- inside the 3,000-seat Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street. Planners are also exploring a conversion of the vacant Town Theater on Fayette Street to a "heritage museum" for blacks and other minorities.

The first to be redeveloped may be the Mayfair, a 1903 landmark. In September, Towson State representatives submitted a preliminary proposal outlining their ideas for recycling the Mayfair and the Congress, to which it has an underground connection, as a center for theater, dance, filmmaking and television production.

"It's very exciting," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a strong advocate of the plan to make Howard Street a site for artists and arts events. "It would fit well with our strategy for that corridor, and it's close to the Meyerhoff and the Lyric."

The seven-story Congress opened in 1905 as the Hotel Kernan, after builder James Kernan. It was part of a complex that included the Maryland Theater, which was demolished in 1951, and the building now known as the Mayfair.

Many well-known actors stayed in the hotel when they were performing in Baltimore; Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan had their wedding reception there. Subsequently renamed the Congress, the hotel became run down by the 1970s and closed in the 1980s.

The French Renaissance-styled Mayfair was built on the foundations of the Natatorium, an 1882 swimming school. Mr. Kernan, the builder, retained the basement-level pool as a Turkish bath and added a 1,760-seat vaudeville house called the Howard Auditorium. Katharine Hepburn began her career there.

The theater was sold in 1940 and reopened a year later as a first-run movie palace called the Mayfair Theater. By the early 1980s, it was reduced to showing kung fu and horror flicks. It closed in 1986, and the city acquired it soon afterward. Several architects have considered reuse, including Cho, Wilks & Benn and Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick.

Towson State fits into the latest rejuvenation effort because it is launching a master's degree program in theater in the fall of 1994 and would like to have a presence in downtown Baltimore.

Alex Sidorowicz, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, said the program would be based on the Towson State campus, and he stressed that the university has no funds to launch a major building project downtown.

But he said a revamped Mayfair-Congress complex could be an attractive satellite venue either for Towson State programs or collaborations between Towson State and other arts organizations. Upper floors of the hotel, he said, could become TV studios, film editing studios, design shops and other ancillary spaces.

"We're not thinking of doing it alone. But we're willing to take a look and see how can we lend our expertise to help the city develop a performing arts center," he said.

"I see it more as a performance-production center than an academic facility," he added. "It could be a home for groups that don't currently have one. It would be another reason for theater professionals to stay in Baltimore."

Delaplaine Center plans open house

The Delaplaine Visual Arts Center in Frederick will hold an open house starting at 10 a.m. Saturday to mark completion of renovations on the first floor of its new home inside the former Mountain City Mill Building at 40 S. Carroll St. The center's directors are also launching a campaign to raise $2.6 million to complete and equip the building's top three floors and construct an addition.

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