The Mechanic: Will the show go on?


January 20, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

What does the future hold for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the rough-textured concrete edifice that opened in Charles Center 27 years ago this week?

Is it a distinguished work of architecture that ought to be saved at all costs, or an expensive and expendable bauble that no longer fits into the city's vision for downtown?

Those questions are likely to receive plenty of discussion in the months to come, as city planners and others attempt to determine the best use for the theater property after a $70 million performing arts center is built in the Mount Royal cultural center.

The Mount Royal project has been conceived as the new home for the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, a quasi-public agency that has a long-term lease on the 1,607-seat Mechanic at Baltimore and Charles streets.

Representatives of the agency have said they want to move to a new facility with 2,500 to 3,000 seats so that they can bring in large-scale touring shows that otherwise would bypass Baltimore.

Owners of the Mechanic -- a group headed by Clarisse Mechanic and her brother, Blue Baron -- have been silent about their long-range plans. City officials say that as they plan the arts center at 901 N. Howard St., they also will study options for the Mechanic site.

Tonight, theatergoers and other members of the public will get to express their opinions about the theater during a town meeting on the future of the financial district.

The meeting, sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), will start at 7:30 p.m. in the Baltimore Theater on the mezzanine of the Lord Baltimore Radisson Hotel, Baltimore and Hanover streets. Also up for discussion tonight is the future of Howard Street, Charles Center, the Baltimore Arena and the recently raided Block in the 400 block of E. Baltimore Street.

Peter Fillat, a local architect and member of the AIA's Urban Design Committee, said he is part of a group that will recommend tonight that the theater be replaced with a multipurpose complex that would be called the Baltimore International Investment Satellite and Communications Tower.

The tower, which he said would rise 60 to 70 stories, would provide the telecommunications links that local investment firms such as T. Rowe Price Associates and Alex. Brown & Sons will need to stay in contact with financial markets around the world. It also would be Baltimore's tallest building.

"We don't think the Mechanic should be where it is anymore if they're going to build this new theater," Mr. Fillat said, speaking for an AIA subcommittee that has studied the financial district. "Although it is a relatively exciting building, the Mechanic doesn't work very well from an urban design point of view, and it doesn't add life to the streets the way this new tower could."

Actually, the Mechanic has been the subject of controversy since it opened on Jan. 16, 1967. Architect John Johansen, working in joint venture with Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet Inc., called it "functional expressionism." Because it was one of the first local buildings with a poured-in-place concrete surface and a shape that reflected the theater's interior spaces, many people didn't know what to make of it.

Some sidewalk superintendents doubted whether construction would be finished on time. They thought the concrete walls were going to be covered up. But as opening night neared, they realized those were the theater's walls -- inside and out.

Julio Center

The former Chamber of Commerce Building at 17 Commerce St. in Baltimore has been rededicated as the Carl T. and Edward Julio Center for the Study of Business and Management. The name change reflects the building's acquisition last year by the Baltimore International Culinary College. It now houses the college's Food and Beverage Management and Hotel/Motel/Innkeeping Management programs, as well as other departments.

The Julios are Baltimore County developers who were instrumental in the college's purchase of the building. A library inside has been named the George A. Piendak Library in honor of a longtime college board member and current board chairman.

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